PM expresses regret over Roma sterilization but activists say practice continues

Human rights campaigners won an important moral victory on Monday when the government of Jan Fischer expressed regret over the forced sterilization of women, almost all of them members of the country’s Roma minority. No reliable figures exist for the numbers of women sterilized, but what’s alarming is that according to human rights groups, the practice continues in isolated cases to this day.

Prime Minister Jan Fischer addressed a special news briefing on Monday in which he offered a formal expression of regret for those women – predominantly members of the Roma minority – who were sterilized either against their will or without proper consent. There would be no financial compensation, Mr Fischer added, explaining that such a move would be inappropriate amidst the economic crisis.

Michael Kocáb
Figures are extremely hard to come by, but as human rights and minorities minister Michael Kocáb told journalists, a report into 80 such cases drawn up by the Czech ombudsman’s office suggested local authorities in the Communist period had embarked on what amounted to a programme of social engineering.

“To quote the ombudsman’s report – it would be a mistake to assume that measures taken by the pre-1989 authorities towards the Roma minority were implemented by chance as opposed to being coordinated. It’s true there is no mention in state reports from the 1970s of the need to regulate the birthrate among the Roma. However there are mentions of this in reports drawn up by local or regional state bodies from the same period, and they’re very interesting: for instance this, from Brno, 1970 – ‘we recommend health education programmes to reduce the birth rate and therefore restrict the unwanted growth of Roma families’.”

According to human rights groups Czechoslovak social services used a carrot and stick approach to encourage Roma women to become infertile. Either the authorities offered considerable financial incentives, or social workers threatened to take their existing children into care.

The practice was abandoned as state policy in 1991, but by no means has it disappeared. Helena Ferjenčíková says she was sterilized without proper consent during a caesarean section in 2001.

“I was in such pain, that I just signed it – who wouldn’t? Nobody explained to me – nobody told me – that I’d never be able to have children again.”

Rights groups are now trying to document all such cases. Gwendolyn Albert is a U.S.-born human rights activist.

“We know for a fact it’s still happening. One of those twenty cases that were discovered last year included allegations from the year 2007 and 2008. The case from 2007 was extremely disturbing, because it seemed to be a revival of old practice, whereby a social worker told a Romani mother, who already had three children and was living in a precarious situation, that if she didn’t agree to undergo sterilization, two of her children would be placed in state care. The woman tried to not undergo the operation; she would claim to be sick when the appointment was made for her and all of this sort of thing, but in the end, to keep her family together, she agreed to undergo it.”

Human rights groups have welcomed the government’s expression of regret, but say the state must now issue compensation to Romani women who were made infertile against their will and also introduce legal measures to ensure it never happens again.