Czech court rules in first-ever case heard on 'coercive sterilisation' of Roma women

Helena Ferencikova and her husband Jan always wanted to have a girl. But the young Roma couple's simple dream may never be realised, for in October 2001 -- when she was just nineteen years old -- Mrs Ferencikova was sterilised against her wishes, after giving birth to her second son. On Friday, the regional court of Ostrava stopped short of awarding damages but ruled that the hospital which performed the sterilisation owes Mrs Ferencikova an apology. The court's decision, once finalised in writing, would be the first finding in any Czech or Eastern European court of legal violations concerning the coercive sterilisation of Roma women.

From the 1970s on, Roma (Gypsy) women were routinely sterilised in Communist Czechoslovakia. There was an official policy in place to curb the "high, unhealthy" birth rate of that minority group, which authorities - and society at large - considered problematic. Social workers were authorised to give state money to women who underwent sterilisation - and are alleged to have used the threat of enforced foster care to get reluctant Roma women to agree to the operation.

This policy was decried by the Czechoslovak dissident initiative Charter 77, and extensively documented in the late 1980s. The international pressure group Human Rights Watch concluded in a 1992 report that the practice ended in mid-1990 -- but in recent years, human rights groups in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have unearthed evidence that doctors and hospital staff continue to pressure Roma to undergo sterilisation.

In the case heard in Ostrava on Friday, doctors claimed they were right to sterilise Helena Ferencikova because, after two caesarean sections, a third would have endangered her health. The hospital in question intends to appeal the court decision. Mrs Ferencikova says she was in the throes of labour at the time and would have signed any paper doctors had put in front of her; she didn't understand its contents and doctors ignored her request to consult the matter with her husband.

Lawyer Michaela Tomisova is representing nearly seventy Roma women who have filed complaints with the Czech Public Defender of Rights, or "ombudsman's office", over sterilisations allegedly carried out without their "full and informed" consent. She says that the Ostrava court case set an important precedent: just because a woman signed a release form, doesn't mean the procedure was legal.

"The case of Mrs Ferencikova is a typical case from the nineties or early in this decade; what is quite alarming is that the commission founded by the Ministry of Health found the case of Mrs Ferencikova completely okay, without any violations. But the court expressed a different view, and there are more cases very similar to this one [pending]."

Helena Ferencikova was the first to have her day in court. Dozens more cases are certain to follow, says Ms Tomisova, a lawyer retained by the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest and the League of Human Rights, a Czech advocacy group.

Last year, faced with a public inquiry by the ombudsman, then Health Minister Milada Emmerova appointed a commission to investigate the Romany women's claims. In nearly every case, an interim report found, hospitals had failed to follow elementary legal procedures and made "serious errors" in the paperwork.