As evidence emerges of gross violations of Roma rights – women are being sterilised without their informed consent – Roma leaders like Rudko Kawczynski of the Roma National Congress are asking why Brussels did not make better conditions for the Roma a condition for the accession of the ten central and eastern European countries to the EU in May.
Forced or coerced sterilisation is reminiscent of eugenics programmes under fascism, not something one would associate with modern-day democratic societies. Non-governmental organisations are now trying to gain redress for Romani victims and expose the lack of concern for minority rights in certain Eastern European countries by taking their cases before UN and EU bodies.
Ms S in Hungary
Imagine you are Hungarian Romani Ms S. You are at the end of your pregnancy and suddenly your waters break and you start to get terrible pains. You are rushed to hospital and within 17 minutes are on the operating table. The doctor tells you your baby is dead and he must perform an immediate caesarean to remove it. Here, sign this document. After the operation, as you are trying to come to terms with your grief, you ask the doctor when it’s safe to try again for a baby. Never, he tells you. You cannot bear children: you are barren. Unbeknownst to you, you were sterilised under anaesthetic. And you had given permission. For the word sterilisation, not in your native Hungarian, but in Latin, was scrawled on the bottom of that form you signed on the operating table.
Ms S is distraught; she has suffered three times over. She has lost her baby. Her religious beliefs have been violated: she does not believe in any form of birth control. Her cultural norms have been transgressed: she comes from an ethnic group which believes in large families and she herself intended to have many children. And yet she has, so far, been unable to gain any redress within Hungary.
On 15 October 2001, Ms S and her lawyer filed a civil claim for damages against the hospital in Fehergyarmat, asking that the Town Court find the hospital in violation of Ms S’s civil rights and that it had acted negligently with regard to the sterilisation in the absence of her full and informed consent. The claim was turned down on 22 November 2002. On appeal the County Court held that the doctors had indeed acted negligently but that since such sterilisations were reversible (a moot point) she is entitled to no compensation.
Now Ms S, with support from the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) and the Legal Defence Bureau for National and Ethnic Minorities, is taking a suit against Hungary to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (UN CEDAW). For the case, according to the legal director of ERRC, is ‘sadly a typical example of women’s and patients’ rights violations in the health care systems in Central and Eastern Europe [where] due to high levels of anti-Romani sentiment in the region, Romani women are particularly exposed.’
Eastern Slovakian hospitals are blamed
This view is supported by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance whose recent report on Slovakia has highlighted how little is being done by the authorities to prevent the coerced sterilisation of Romani women in hospitals. As in the Hungarian case now being taken to UN CEDAW, Romani women have been subject to sterilisations in Eastern Slovakia without their full and informed consent. Some are being asked to sign forms under anaesthesia, others are told that further pregnancies would prove fatal for them or their babies, some have been presented with forms after sterilisation operations have taken place.
Although the government brought in a resolution at the end of last year about steps and measures to be adopted against future forced sterilisation of Romani women, NGOs feel the government still does not take the issue seriously enough. For example, in a recent investigation of the conduct at one hospital, only the crime of genocide was focused on, not violations of the right to health care and bodily integrity and autonomy. And in its report the Slovak government merely referred to ‘procedural shortcomings’ in cases of coerced sterilisations and no remedy provided for victims.
An essential problem for those who have been victims of sterilisation without informed consent in Slovakia, is that neither they nor their legal representatives are currently allowed access to the medical records. However, the European Roma Rights Center, which is trying to ensure that the new legislation meets international standards, hopes that a new Healthcare Act will give access to records and that a draft Sterilisation Regulation will be strengthened so as to ensure that informed consent is a requirement in every single case.