‘They will take my daughters’

Europe has a dark history of policing Roma women’s wombs. Cyrine Sinti investigates attempts to redress forced sterilization in the Czech Republic.

A Roma woman demonstrates outside Ostrava Municipal Hospital in the Czech Republic on 11 September 2020. She is taking part in a demonstration calling for the enactment of a law to compensate women who were unlawfully sterilised.
VLADIMIR PRYCEK/CTK PHOTO/ALAMY

On 22 July a longstanding wrong was righted in Czech courts. The Czech senate voted to compensate the thousands of Roma women that were sterilized forcibly or without their consent in Czechoslovakia from 1966 to 2012.

For Esma, who was forcibly sterilized in the early seventies, this move towards redress comes too late. ‘I don’t care for their money now and the ones who did it to us are probably dead,’ she says. ‘I am an old woman – I can barely walk up the stairs. I’ll have to give that money back to them when I pay for my funeral.’

The wombs of Roma women have been subjected to legislation, punishment, and invasion throughout history. The Nazi persecution of Roma women is perhaps the best-known example. Women incarcerated at Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Porajmos – the Nazi genocide of Roma – were often summoned for ‘gynaecological examination’, purportedly to examine them for gonorrhoea, but in reality to perform sterilization and test new methods of rendering women infertile.  Many did not live to tell their stories: an estimated 90 per cent of Roma living in the territory which makes up the modern-day Czech Republic were killed during the Porajmos.

Despite repudiating the horrors of Nazism, European governments continued to implement eugenics-based policies to reduce the Roma population after the Second World War. Wider recognition of this dark history is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Czech government coerced and forced women to be sterilized over decades, first under the Communist government of Czechoslovakia and then after the 1989 Velvet Revolution.

Thousands of women were threatened, tricked or bribed into undergoing surgery. In 1975, when Eva Lilová submitted paperwork for sterilization, she gave ‘money’ as the reason why. The ‘money’ in question was the 10,000 Czechoslovak crowns (equivalent at the time to around $1,000) incentive offered by the Czechoslovakian government to impoverished Roma women. For many women, the promise of 10,000 Kč meant a guarantee of food and shelter at time of acute discrimination.

Lilová and her teenage sister had a change of heart and ran away prior to the surgery. But they were found, taken to the hospital, sterilized, and given only 8,000 crowns as a punishment for trying to evade the procedure. There were other reasons given on forms – from Libuše Balážová’s ‘varicose veins’ to another woman’s ‘migraines’. Some women were told they needed procedures such as tooth extractions and were then sterilized without their knowledge.

The sterilizations took place against a backdrop of extreme racism. Attitudes toward Roma people in the 1970s were of xenophobic mistrust born from constant anti-Roma propaganda. Work was scarce, as were landlords who were willing to rent homes to the Roma. Ana*, a grandmother from Vitkov, Czech Republic, recalls the way Roma people were spoken about at that time: ‘Everyone thought we raped our children and carried diseases. My dad and I used to go to the markets together and people would accuse him of making me his wife.

Roma women were preyed on by racist healthcare workers and condemned to invasive, risky surgeries

‘Nobody thought we were human. The politicians and the doctors would speak of us like we were experiments and aliens. Nobody cared if we were sterilized. There would be conversations about a 10-year goal to rid Czechoslovakia of all gypsies.’

Dr Jiří Vacek, chief gynaecologist in a Czech hospital during the 1970s, had personally sterilized 29 women. In a 1975-edition of medical journal Československá gynekologie, Vacek cited ‘socio-economic’ reasons. ‘The cost is absolutely insignificant in comparison to the price of 250,000 Czechoslovak crowns ($25,000) the state would have to pay for one asylum child, often genetically damaged,’ Vacek wrote. In the eyes of the healthcare professionals in charge, such ‘genetic damage’ was assumed.

Another Czech Roma woman, Ndezhda*, says she was tricked into giving consent for sterilization after giving birth. ‘They came with papers and said I needed to sign for more medicine because I had twins,’ she recalls. ‘I tried telling them I didn’t read or write but they kept shouting that they will take my daughters. So, I signed because I was scared.’

Like Ndezhda, many women were handed paperwork either during labour or immediately after. Barely conscious and in immense pain, Roma women were preyed on by racist healthcare workers and condemned to invasive, risky surgeries.

The Governmental Bureau for the Questions of the Roma Population believed that Roma people were unable to make their own decisions. ‘In many cases, especially when the parents are mentally retarded, they are not able to realize that for their own health, as well as for the child that would be born psychologically defective, sterilization is necessary,’ the Bureau said. ‘The only legal way to circumvent this problem right now… is to constitute such a citizen legally incapacitated and [officially] assign her a social guardian.’

The decision made on 22 July marked a significant change in the willing obliviousness that European governments have adopted toward the treatment of Roma people. While an important gesture, the Czech requirements for being granted compensation for these traumatic experiences is vast. Victims will only have three years from the introduction of the law to apply through the Ministry of Healthcare for their 300,000 Czech crowns (approximately $13,750) compensation.

Many of those affected are still unable to read or write, and yet they are required to provide evidence of their ordeals and prepare extensive written accounts. Women fear a sense of double betrayal if their cases are rejected at tribunal.

The Czech Republic is one country among many that have victimized Roma women. Slovakia has yet to take blanket action to compensate victims. An anonymous woman was awarded €16,000 ($18,300) compensation last year for being sterilized without consent – but only after she had spent 15 years fighting her case.

In 2006 the UN’s committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) ruled that the sterilization of a Hungarian Roma woman, known only as Ms A S, who did not understand what she was being asked to consent to, amounted to violence and a violation of reproductive rights. But from Romania’s 500-year long enslavement of Roma people to Sweden’s recent maintenance of an illegal state database of Roma (including pre-teens), anti-Roma discrimination has prompted little outcry. Public apologies – and remedies for centuries of discrimination – are an even more distant prospect. Instead, Roma people are told that their ‘way of life’ is to blame.

Roma people have been born against the wishes of empires and governments. They have been forced to assimilate into a world that has let war crimes and attempts to exterminate them go unchecked. Now is the time for the world to finally consider Roma women as human beings, and attempt to redress the injustice that persists to this day.

* indicates a name has been changed.

From legislation to compensation
State institutions across Czechoslovakia began unlawfully sterilizing Roma women in 1966. In 1971, a directive introduced by the Czech legislature, the devolved parliament for the Czech Republic within the then-federated Czechoslovakia, gave local authorities and hospitals a free hand to sterilize Roma women.
 
It was not just Roma who were sterilized in post-war Czechoslovakia – disabled women were victims too. But according to research published by the Czech academic Vera Sokolova, Roma accounted for 36 per cent of sterilizations between 1972 and the 1990s despite not making up more than 2 per cent of the Czech population. Women were typically sterilized through tubal ligation – or ‘having one’s tubes tied’ – but some developed resulting health conditions which meant they were later forced to undergo hysterectomies.
 
The 1971 directive was abolished in 1992, but sterilizations continued to take place with illegally obtained consent. The last-known sterilization took place in 2007, but Czech law was not amended to explicitly require meaningful consent until 2012. Compensation would take another nine years.
 
Cyrine Sinti is a UK-based writer, belly-dancer and aerial performer of Slovak Gypsy heritage.