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State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: Forced sterilization of Roma women

Publisher Minority Rights Group International
Publication Date 24 September 2013
Cite as Minority Rights Group International, State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 - Case study: Forced sterilization of Roma women, 24 September 2013, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/526fb7153.html [accessed 4 December 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

After decades of silence, Roma women who were forcibly sterilized by the state in Eastern Europe have won their cases in the European Court.

Forced sterilization of Roma women remained unacknowledged in Eastern Europe for a long time, until a number of court cases brought the proportions of this shocking practice to light. In the Czech Republic, the practice of sterilizing Roma women without their informed consent has continued, with cases as recently as 2009.

In the past two years, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of a number of Roma women who had been forcibly sterilized by a Slovak state hospital. The Court declared that the practice constituted a violation of their fundamental rights.

'I am pleased that the European Court confirmed [our claims] and admitted that they sterilized us without our consent,' said one of the women, identified as I.G. in the case in November 2012. 'In my name, and the name of other Roma women, I thank the European Court,' she added. In its third verdict against Slovakia, the Court ruled in favour of the two plaintiffs (a third applicant passed away in 2010) and granted compensation of €28,500 and €27,000 and reimbursement of their legal fees. The applicants were the first who were willing to bring cases against doctors in Slovakia and inspired other women to come forward and do the same.

The applicants had submitted a complaint to the Court in 2004, claiming that they had been forcibly sterilized after caesarean sections at the hospital in Krompachy between 1999 and 2002. Legally minors at the time, they were asked to sign a document that they thought was required for delivery by caesarean section. The doctors sterilized them without the consent of their legal guardians as required by Slovak law. It was only during an investigation years later that it was revealed the documents were actually requests for sterilization.

The Court followed the reasoning from its two recent judgments in V.C. v. Slovakia (2011) and N.B. v. Slovakia (2012). Finding that the sterilizations were not life-saving medical interventions and that they were performed without the requisite informed consent, the Court held that this treatment violated the right to freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to private and family life. The Court also found that Slovakia had failed in its obligation to protect the reproductive health of Roma women, and that it did not conduct a prompt and reasonable investigation as required by Article 3 of the ECHR.

These three important judgments were followed by yet another case, in June 2012, in which the Court significantly raised the amount of compensation awarded to the applicant by a Slovakian court, arguing that the sterilization caused her psychological suffering and had seriously affected her position as a woman in the Roma community.

The practice of forced sterilization of Roma women in Czechoslovakia started in the 1970s and officially ended after the collapse of the communist regime in 1990. Systematic forced sterilization was used to curb the supposedly 'high, unhealthy' fertility rate among Roma and the practice continued after the break-up of the country into Slovakia and Czech Republic in 1993.

According to estimates by the Czech ombudsman, as many as 90,000 women from the former Czechoslovakia became infertile as a consequence of such interventions. In some cases in Czechoslovakia some Roma women were threatened or offered incentives to undergo the operation. Similar cases, but far fewer, have been reported in Hungary.

For years women who had been forcibly sterilized stayed silent, and some were even ashamed to tell their own husbands.

In November 2009, the Czech government expressed regret for 'individual failures' in carrying out sterilizations, but many women are still waiting for adequate redress. In December 2012 the Czech government settled out of court with a woman of Roma origin after she filed a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The agreement included compensation of 10,000 Euros and the concession that the government was at fault.

Meanwhile, in Slovakia, the liberal opposition Freedom and Solidarity party (Svoboda a Solidarita – SaS) proposed in August 2012 that the state should introduce a subsidy for voluntary sterilizations for women over 35 who have more than three children. According to the authors of the draft law, the measures are a form of social benefit as the state would take over the costs of the operation, which could contribute toward reducing the 'extremely high birth rates in [Roma] settlements'. While the proposal was based on voluntary participation, it underscored the fact that sterilization as a form of social control is not a thing of the past. It remains an ongoing and inherently stigmatizing issue for Roma women.

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