UN committee looks into enforced sterilization of Romany women

Romany protest against enforced sterilization, photo: CTK

A United Nations committee on the elimination of discrimination against women is looking into claims of enforced sterilization of Romany women in a number of post communist states, the Czech Republic included. The practice is said to have started in the communist days as a means of "regulating" the Romany population, but human rights activists fear that the practice did not end with the fall of communism.

The scandal over alleged illegal sterilization of Romany women broke out in 2004 when the European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest first published information about it. Since then dozens of Czech Romany women have come forward to tell their story, demanding an apology and financial compensation.

Elena Gorolova from Ostrava testified before the UN committee in New York last week, saying that she had signed an endorsement of sterilization heavily sedated and had not been told what the procedure entailed. It was her word against that of the official Czech government delegation which was also asked to present a report - and which said that doctors had not violated the law or medical ethics. In all cases they could produce written consent from their patient and had allegedly explained what sterilization meant.

Kumar Vishvanathan
Kumar Vishvanathan is actively involved in social work for the Roma, mediating between them and the authorities:

"During the process of childbirth they were given a paper to sign saying that they consent to a C-section and, at the same time, to sterilization. In some cases the women were informed that they were going to be sterilized and that they had to sign a paper and the women signed it, but they didn't have any time to think over things, to discuss it with their partners. Some of the women thought it was a temporary arrangement, something like an intra-uterine device, that it was reversible. They never thought in terms that they would never ever have any more children."

So where do these women stand legally - having signed an endorsement of sterilization? A Czech court set a precedent last year when it ruled that a hospital in Ostrava had violated medical ethics by not properly informing Helena Ferencikova about her state of health and the proposed sterilization. The court ruled that the hospital should apologize. Mrs. Ferencikova said this was not enough and has appealed the verdict asking for a million crowns in compensation.

Romany protest against enforced sterilization,  photo: CTK
"I am hoping we will win. Of course we expected them to fight tooth and nail and it was clear they never meant to apologize. Both sides appealed the verdict and we are now awaiting the second ruling - waiting to see whether it will go in favour of them or us."

Women like Helena Ferencikova and Elena Gorolova are getting help from NGOs such as Gender studies, an organization which supports women's rights. A report from the Czech Ombudsman's office which carried out its own investigation into the affair has also gone in their favour. The office said it had collected sufficient evidence to suggest that at least 50 Romany women living in the Czech Republic - formerly in communist Czechoslovakia - had been forcibly sterilized in the years between 1979 and 2001. The UN committee is expected to take a stand on the matter within two to three weeks.