Against their will

Lea Surugue and Gisella Ligios report from the Czech Republic where Roma women who were forcibly sterilized are demanding the authorities take responsibility

Marta Puskovà was just 23 when she was sterilized. She had recently had her third daughter, and although she and her husband had hoped for a boy, they were happy to see their family expand.

More than three decades later, sitting at the table of a dimly lit restaurant in the little town of Ostrava, in the eastern Czech Republic, Puskovà looks lost in her thoughts. She recalls the social worker who came to her house soon after the birth, urging her to go back to the hospital to get checked up for a blood condition. ‘As soon as I got there, they took my baby to the children’s ward and put me in a room,’ she says. ‘They gave me an injection with a pain killer and anaesthetic and said I had to undergo a surgery – nobody told me of what kind. They had me sign papers without telling me anything.’

Puskovà woke up in pain and, again, none of the doctors would tell her anything. It was the hospital’s cleaner who took pity on her, and finally explained that she had been sterilized and wouldn’t be able to have children again.

Her story is not unusual. Puskovà is just one of hundreds women from the Roma minority who were sterilized against their will from the 1970s to the start of the 1990s, in what was then communist Czechoslovakia. In 1971, the government passed a decree, which enabled local authorities to take steps to encourage the sterilization of Roma and disabled women. Later, financial incentives were established for these women to undergo the procedure. Although coerced sterilization stopped being an official policy when communist Czechoslovakia dissipated, non-consensual sterilization of women continued in the Czech Republic throughout the late 1990s and into the early 2000s in some hospitals. The last known case dates back to 2007.

Widespread discrimination

Like Puskovà, many Roma women who were sterilized were lied to, or not told the exact nature of the operation they would undergo. It was often performed under the pretext of improving their health but without giving them any details.

Although it was necessary to seek their written consent, few were actually given the paperwork in appropriate circumstances. Some were made to sign blank papers which were then filled retrospectively. Elena Gorlova’s story is a striking example. Gorlova was sterilized during the delivery of her second son by caesarean section. ‘They brought the consent forms for the sterilization when I was in labour, and in pain. I had seen a social worker throughout my pregnancy and she never said a word about it,’ she says. Now a social worker herself, Gorlova is a fierce defender of Roma women’s rights and is working hard to ensure such abuse is never repeated.

Roma are the largest minority in the Czech Republic, with up to 250,000 living in the country, and discrimination against this population has a long history.

Today Roma women may no longer be coerced into sterilization, but they are still treated differently when they arrive at hospitals to give birth. They are still often not trusted by doctors to make informed decisions regarding their fertility. This climate of discrimination partly explains how the sterilizations were allowed to happen against their will.

It also explains why very few women have ever been compensated for what they endured. A three-year statute of limitation has meant that the judicial system has let down most of these women, as they were more often than not too late in realizing the abuse had occurred or in starting legal proceedings.

‘It’s important the [Czech] State recognizes its responsibility… they should find the people who survived and provide compensation’

Dramatic consequences

Sterilization had a devastating impact on the women’s role in their community and their family lives, particularly because Roma culture puts great value on large families. Olga Kovácikovà, from Ostrava, remembers that her husband did not realize that she had undergone the procedure at first. ‘When he found out, he wanted to know if I had any say in it. When he met his friends at the pub for a beer, he felt ashamed in front of the other men because his wife could not have children anymore.’ Divorce inevitably followed. Her friend Vlasta Cicková tells a slightly different story: she did not separate from her husband, but he kept running away to Prague after her sterilization to seek other women, leaving her in despair.

Many of the women have needed psychological counselling. Gorlova experienced anxiety and sadness whenever a baby was born in her close circle. ‘Even today, when I go shopping and see baby clothing, I feel I’m missing something in my life,’ she says. For many, sterilization has robbed them of their sense of being a woman. ‘We feel as if we are good for nothing, like dried trees which bear no fruits anymore,’ says Puskovà.

But this dramatic turning point in their lives has also imbued the women with a fighting spirit and a sense of self-empowerment. Their efforts to see justice served has given a new meaning to their negative experience.

The path ahead

While the three-year statute of limitation stills remains a major hurdle on the road to compensation, the women are adamant about what the outcome should be. ‘I don’t have much strength left anymore,’ says Kovácikovà, ‘I just hope for a financial settlement.’ The money would cover their medical expenses, as today many of them suffer from serious health complications.

In 2009 the Czech authorities expressed regret about the forced sterilizations, but emphasized ‘individual failures by health personnel’. They distanced themselves from the abuse and denied that it was systematic. ‘It’s important the State recognizes its responsibility, because they trained the doctors, they run the hospitals and they offered the incentives, so they should find the people who survived and provide compensation,’ says Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights activist based in Prague.

This has yet to happen. In 2014, Czech ombudswoman Anna Šabatová established a group to draft a new mechanism of financial compensation, but this legislation was later rejected by the government without reasons being given. At the start of this year, it looked as if some progress was on the horizon, as a meeting was held in March between the women in Ostrava and the Minister of Justice Robert Pelikán. NGOs were asked to come up with the exact number of women who would claim compensation, allowing the government to make a financial assessment and to discuss a settlement outside the courtrooms. However, the recent resignation of the Czech government has brought uncertainty, complicating the situation further. ‘Until we have a new government, it won’t be the right time to move forward,’ Šabatová explains.

Two judicial cases are also pending before the European Court of Human Rights and the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, but it is hard to predict when a decision is expected. ‘I’ve been working on this issue since 2004 and I know of three women who have passed away without ever receiving compensation,’ says Albert.

‘Compensation would be good and we deserve it. But nobody can give you back your health,’ says Marta Puskovà. ‘Once it has happened to you, you’ll never find real peace.’ Whatever happens next, the women are not giving up.

Lea Surugue is a freelance journalist based in Spain, covering science and health stories.

Gisella Ligios is a freelance journalist based in the UK, who writes about politics and economics.