By Mindy Kay Bricker
PRAGUE (Newsdesk.org) — Gypsy women who say they were sterilized against their will by Czech doctors were heartened last December when a government investigator released a study that largely vindicated their claims.
Six months later, however, advocates for Gypsies — known more formally as Roma — say the practice is continuing, and are dismayed by what they consider only token steps by Czech officials to stop it.
“There’s been basically dead silence at the level of elites,” said Claude Cahn, program director of the European Roma Rights Center, an advocacy group based in Budapest.
Officials at the Health Ministry acknowledge the problem, but have not taken responsibility.
“[Sterilization] was by no means a national policy, but errors [were] committed by individual medical facilities,” said Jaroslav Strof, the Health Ministry’s director of healthcare and pharmacy, in an e-mailed statement.
Yet the Czech government’s independent ombudsman, Otakar Motejl, released a detailed report last year charging that “potentially problematic” sterilizations of Roma women have been public knowledge for more than 15 years.
In the report, Motejl identified dozens of cases of coercive sterilization between 1979 and 2001, and called for criminal investigations and possible prosecution against several health care workers and administrators.
Protest and Advocacy
In Prague, Lucie Rybova, secretary of the government’s Biomedicine and Human Rights Committee, said her department considers Roma sterilization “a pressing issue,” but said that “there is no further official Czech investigation into this.”
Rybova, who stressed that she does not speak officially for the government, said her own office has called for the establishment of a special committee that would investigate any future claims of sterilization.
She also said a proposal by her office to implement reforms suggested by the ombudsman has been blocked by the Health and Justice ministries, and that a revised plan will take several months to develop.
Many in the Romani community — see protest and advocacy as the only real way to move this government process forward.
In Ostrava, the third largest city in the Czech Republic and a former hub of industry during the Soviet era, ethnic Roma women have been gathering for more than three years to share stories and publicize their plight.
At a meeting in February, Natasa Botosova, 39, said she was sterilized in 1991, after giving birth to her fourth child.
“The doctors ruined my life,” she said.
She and her peers, known collectively as the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilization, say that the government is not taking them seriously.
Botosova, as well as others from Ostrava, filed 87 claims with the ombudsman, instigating his investigation and final report.
Kumar Vishwanathan, director of Life Together, a Roma rights organization, said that it was not easy for the women to come forward and talk about being sterilized.
Eventually, he said, “they realized ‘it’s not just my problem alone.’”
After sharing their stories, the women of the Ostrava group found their experiences were nearly identical.
Most were given a caesarean section, and then were told they needed to be sterilized.
Botosova, like the others, said she was given paperwork to sign within minutes of delivering her child, a practice the ombudsman described as “indefensible.”
As many Romani communities are plagued by poverty and illiteracy, some of the women signed without understanding what the consent forms meant.
Others, who could read, nonetheless said they trusted the doctors.
But neither Botosova nor the other 12 women who attended the February meeting in Ostrava say they understood that “sterilization” meant that getting a tubal ligation, preventing them from ever giving birth again.
All said they understood sterilization to be a sort of post-delivery “cleaning.”
Their experiences resonate throughout the report, which found that Romani women were given “incomplete and misleading” information that led them to believe incorrectly that sterilization was an “urgent and life-saving treatment.”
The ombudsman also documented cases in which hospitals had destroyed evidence, making it impossible to confirm whether consent was freely given.
The practice of coercive sterilization has roots in the eugenics movement that flourished in Europe and the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Motejl’s report includes a 20-page digression on eugenics and notes the founding of the Czech Eugenics Society in 1915.
During World War II, Carl Clauberg, a former professor of obstetrics at the University of Konigsberg, conducted sterilization experiments at Germany’s Ravensbruck concentration camp, specifically targeting Roma women.
In 1971 the Soviet client government of the former Czechoslovakia issued a directive permitting gynecologists to sterilize Romani women, and offering financial incentives to those who did so.
The policy was condemned as genocide in 1979 by the human rights group Charter 77, but continued through the “Velvet Revolution” that toppled communism in 1989.
Today, the human rights debate persists along with the practice of sterilization.
Katerina Jacques, a Green Party member and director of the government’s Human Rights and Equal Opportunities department, said in an e-mail that she joined an advisory board on Roma sterilization that the Health Ministry convened at the request of Motejl.
She quickly grew frustrated, and said that the board seemed to have “an invisible wall between the medical view of the problem and a legal or human rights view.”
She resigned in February, two months after the release of the ombudsman’s report, saying that her colleagues on the board did not listen to her.
“My activities in the committee were made difficult and my objections were not reflected upon,” she said.
She noted that the board did eventually propose modifying the law governing sterilization, which currently does not ensure that women are informed of the risks of the procedure or alternatives to it.
Motejl, whose official title is the Public Defender of Rights, said in his report that his authority was limited to addressing citizen grievances against government officials and institutions, not doctors and hospitals, which are nongovernmental authorities.
But he said that sterilization was a “burning issue” that was being neglected, giving him the moral imperative to document the cases for the public record, and make recommendations for redress.
Though Cahn and other Romani advocates considered the ombudsman’s report a small victory months ago, they fear there will be no follow-up investigations for future sterilization claims.
“We would like to see the Prime Minister’s office take this matter up directly,” Cahn wrote in an e-mail. “It is an area where top-level leadership is needed.”
For Vishwanathan, the issue is not just a matter of Romani women being sterilized — it’s about informed consent, “an issue that affects every citizen in this country,” he said.
“There has been no public debate, nothing about it,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”
Mindy Kay Bricker, a freelance writer based in Prague, is a correspondent for Women’s eNews and a contributor to The Christian Science Monitor. Additional reporting by Josh Wilson.