Compensation for forced sterilizations of Romani women and others is poorly implemented

By Gwendolyn Albert
In November 2021, a law was passed in the Czech Republic to compensate people who have been sterilized without their informed consent there between 1966 and 2012.

In November 2021, a law was passed in the Czech Republic to compensate those who were sterilized without their informed consent there between 1966 and 2012. Efforts to end these human rights violations have been underway almost since these practices were first reported in the 1970s as targeting Romani women in particular in the former Czechoslovakia. This recent development represents an important breakthrough for civil society, enforcement of human rights, and the Romani women who have been campaigning for redress. The compensation process opened on 1 January 2022 and will close on 1 January 2025.

These violations began in the former Czechoslovakia when communist-era social workers used a combination of deceptive practices, incentives and threats to convince Romani women in particular to undergo the procedure, many of whom were also misled to believe it was reversible, temporary birth control. The incentive program was ended around the time of the transition to democracy, but Romani women and others continued to be misled by health care workers into unwittingly signing consent forms to sterilization while in labor prior to the Cesarean delivery of children – or in some cases were never even informed that they had been sterilized after their children were delivered. For those who were informed they could never conceive again, some received the false excuse that the sterilization itself had been a “life-saving” procedure.

The Czech Republic’s first-ever ombudsman collected more than 80 testimonies regarding these sterilizations in 2004 for which the “consent” had been invalid and asked the Health Ministry for an explanation of the cases. In 2005 he published his Final Statement assessing the ministry’s response and recommended that the victims be compensated (the ministry failed to see most of the violations that the ombudsman clearly saw). In 2009, the Czech Government expressed regret for what it called “individual failures” in this regard. In the year 2012, legislation governing the performance of sterilizations was improved to require a grace period between when patients request such a procedure and its actual performance in an effort to prevent such violations.

The ombudsman’s 2005 report describes the communist-era experience of one such Romani woman as follows:

Mrs. G stated … that she was sterilized in 1979 in a Most hospital. Nobody … justified the need for the intervention to her. A social worker had been retaining her child allowance for two-and-a-half years until she would undergo sterilization. In the hospital she had been told that she would no longer be able to have children. She had signed a paper, as she had had to. Mrs. G stated that she found both writing and reading difficult. She had been promised CSK 2 000 for the intervention, which had later actually been paid.

As an activist and ally who has assisted the advocacy for this compensation since 2004, I have the privilege today of being a member of a closed group on social media where both Romani and non-Romani women who were sterilized without their informed choice and consent have been meeting to share information about what happened to them, about the fight for compensation, and more recently about their experience of applying for compensation. Some of the women today live abroad, and the social media platform is an excellent way for us all to communicate, especially during the pandemic. The following testimonies were more recently elicited from the members of that group on the condition that their anonymity would be respected.

I was sterilized in 1989 in Kraslice [Czechoslovakia] at the age of 33.  I still cannot accept that they did this to me.”

I was 20 years old when they sterilized me during Caesarean delivery in 1995 in Bohumín. I did not know they had sterilized me, I was not informed about it until 2005, when I could not understand why I was not conceiving and the doctors finally explained what had been done to me. I have never reconciled myself to it. To this day I visit a psychiatrist and take antidepressants to cope. I would like to try assisted reproduction but we cannot afford it.

“I was 23 in 1998 when they sterilized me during the Caesarean delivery of my son. He died eight days later, a terrible death, of a heart defect. To this day I ask myself why they sterilized me. Later I read an article about assisted reproduction, so my husband and I tried it and it worked. Today my son is almost 20 and he is healthy, praise God. Even so, I don’t know why they sterilized me.

As of 1 January, victims of unlawful sterilizations in the Czech Republic can apply for compensation worth CZK 300 000 [EUR 12 000] from the Czech Health Ministry. Sadly, many of the women first targeted by this practice passed away without ever being compensated, although some did live to see the Government’s apology in 2009.

It is Romani women in particular and their allies who achieved the adoption of the compensation procedure. The law establishes that victims who were offered financial incentives before 1990 for undergoing the procedure are to be considered eligible for compensation, although they must still individually apply. Those sterilized after 1990 are asked to describe what happened to them in detail and to support their claims to the best of their ability. Unfortunately, in practice the process has been far from fair or straightforward.

The law has been in effect for more than half a year now, and more than 300 people have applied for compensation. So far, about 80 have been awarded it. The law requires an initial decision be made within 60 days, but as of this writing, some women who filed their applications in January have yet to receive a decision.

Failure to meet this prescribed deadline is just one problem with the execution of this law; while the legislation is meant to compensate victims to whom this happened between 1966 and 2012, the Czech Health Ministry so far has failed to recognize any evidence of these harms other than the original medical records of the procedure.

For many applicants, their medical records have either become damaged through unpredictable events such as natural or other disasters or have been officially shredded, and in some cases they have even been shredded unlawfully. The ministry does not want to acknowledge applicants’ eligibility in such cases. Advocates for the victims disagree with this approach, because in the beginning of our negotiations with the ministry about this law, ministerial representatives expressed a willingness to be flexible which has since disappeared. The ministry has always known, after all, that much of the evidence of the sterilizations having been performed has already been destroyed and that this is not the applicants’ fault. We had hoped the ministry would be able to somehow work with confirmations that the documentation of these victims’ procedures had been shredded and with other supporting evidence.

As members of civil society, together with many allies, we sent an open letter to the Health Minister calling on him to resolve these two problems first and foremost – the failure to meet the legally prescribed deadline for decisions, and the failure to accept other kinds of evidence that the sterilizations happened without the patient’s informed consent.

The ministry’s response to our letter was to reject our proposals and refuse to change their modus operandi. That means the only thing left is for these applicants to sue.

The following story illustrates how the ministry is deciding these cases. One application was rejected even though the woman did provide her medical records of her sterilization in 1979 at a hospital that no longer exists. She had long held onto copies of her medical records but the originals no longer exist, because they were shredded after 40 years as required by law. In its decision, the ministry says it cannot know whether something is or is not missing from the copies of the medical records she has submitted, and that therefore they cannot be considered sufficient evidence.

The ministry, therefore, is indirectly accusing this applicant of deceptively manipulating the evidence she is providing. Such an approach harms applicants and insults their dignity. Her appeal to the Health Minister was unfortunately rejected, so she will have to continue to seek compensation through the courts, a process that is always arduous, costly, and protracted.

Since 2006, Romani women and others have been represented at home and abroad in this fight by the very brave and determined Elena Gorolová, who today is working to assist her fellow survivors of these abuses with applying for compensation. I would like to close with a quote from her:

I see this compensation… as more of a gesture, naturally it will never restore our ability to conceive children. Today the women who survived this are already older, they are not in good health[…] For us, this was not just about the money, though. Personally I am still coping with what was done to me to this day.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) included Elena Gorolová among the world’s 100 most inspiring women in 2018, and for her efforts to compensate the victims of illegal sterilizations she was also given the Alice Garrigue Masaryk Human Rights Award by the Embassy of the United States of America to the Czech Republic in December 2021 along with myself and, Monika Šimůnková, who has served as Government Human Rights Commissioner and as Deputy Public Defender of Rights. 

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