RIGHTS workers say some Roma women coerced into sterilisation were under 18.
photo: Miroslav Dibák
The claims were made in a 140-page report entitled "Body and Soul", which was presented on January 28 in Bratislava. It was the work of the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and the Advisory Centre for Civil and Human Rights (POLP), which has offices in the Czech capital Prague and the eastern Slovak city of Košice.
Based on interviews with more than 230 Roma women from nearly 40 Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia, where the majority of Slovak Roma live, the report documents 110 recent cases of coerced sterilisations. The interviews were carried out between August and October last year, and they include the testimony of Roma women who say they were victims of racially motivated verbal and physical violence in eastern Slovak hospitals.
Presenting their report, the authors asked the Slovak authorities to address the issues, saying it was particularly important now because of the country's expected EU entry in spring 2004 and its obligation to respect international agreements on reproductive rights.
"If you are a Roma woman in Slovakia, it is highly likely that you will be sterilised against your will, that you will be put into maternity rooms segregated from white women, and that you will be slapped and be verbally abused by medical staff," said Barbara Bukovská from the POLP.
The European Parliament's (EP) special envoy to Slovakia, Jan Marinus Wiersma, said January 28 that if Slovakia failed to properly investigate the cases, it could have negative consequences for the country at the EP session in March, when Slovakia's entry into the EU will be discussed.
"The content of the report was very disturbing and shocking. If these [forced sterilisation] practices are taking place, they need to be stopped immediately," Wiersma said.
Slovakia's deputy prime minister for minorities, Pál Csáky, said he has written a letter to responsible cabinet officials, the attorney general, and the Slovak police president requesting them to personally make sure that the allegations are investigated.
According to the report, coerced and forced sterilisation because of racial prejudice is not new to Slovakia, having been perpetrated by both the Nazi and communist regimes in the Czechoslovak territory.
In the post-communist era, "the fear that the Romany population will increase continues to be the driving force in justifying reproductive rights violations against Romany women," the report states.
The authors said that despite mounting evidence that such practices were not abandoned as Slovakia started its transformation into a democracy, the Slovak cabinet has failed put an end to coerced sterilisations, or even condemn them.
"The practice did not stop after the fall of communism, and now in 2003 we present you with a report that documents 110 recent cases. Now we want the Slovak government to thoroughly investigate and punish the people involved in these cases," said Ina Zoom from the CRR.
Klára Orgovánová, cabinet plenipotentiary for Roma communities, told The Slovak Spectator that she considered the report to be a "weighty and important document that includes much sensitive information and allegations about some very serious [crimes]".
"It is particularly shocking that, as the report states, such [sterilisations] are allegedly carried out on some women under 18 years of age," she said.
A 1992 report by Human Rights Watch's Helsinki office said that many Roma women were lured into having the procedure without being fully aware of its irreversible consequences.
Slovakia's estimated 500,000-strong Roma minority includes some of the country's poorest inhabitants. The Roma often live in segregated ghetto-like settlements on the outskirts of towns and villages. According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Program, as much as 44 per cent of Slovak Roma live on state support.
In a 2001 report, the Hungarian think tank the Open Society Institute presented further evidence that coerced sterilisation was common practice in some areas of eastern Slovakia.
The recent "Body and Soul" report includes confessions of women complaining of forced sterilisation and racial abuse in hospitals in Krompachy, Spišská Nová Ves, Košice, and Gelnica.
The head of the Krompachy hospital, Miroslav Kraus, said, however, that the allegations were part of a discrediting campaign against his hospital and he insisted that his doctors had nothing to hide.
"If any patients were sterilised, it was because those patients signed requests that the procedure was carried out," Kraus said.
In the report, many Roma women were quoted as saying they were made to sign sterilisation consent documents while in great pain on operation tables. Some say they were already under anaesthetic and were not able to understand what they were signing.
On other occasions, said Christina Zampas from the CRR, women were made to sign blank forms and the sterilisation was carried out along with Caesarian sections when Roma women gave birth to their children.
Orgovánová insisted that she would make sure these allegations were investigated, including the accusations of racial segregation in hospitals and the racial abuse of Roma women by hospital staff.
"In many hospitals there are segregated rooms for Roma women and the personnel argues that this is because Roma are not clean. Such behaviour is absolutely unacceptable. I will talk to the health minister and the education of medical staff must follow," Orgovánová said.
A number of local NGOs have called on the government to deal with the discrimination that Slovak Roma face in all spheres of life, including employment and education as well as health care.
Orgovánová's office was created in 1999 to specifically address these issues, but because of the complexity of the Roma's situation, in addition to the difficult economic situation in Slovakia in general, the life of most Roma has not improved.
There is a widespread belief among average Slovaks that Roma choose to live off state benefit, and have a large number of children just to get higher state allowances.
According to the "Body and Soul" report, health employees are no different in their attitudes towards the Roma. The report states that doctors sometimes deny Roma women access to their own medical records and that racial abuse is a frequent problem in hospitals.
One Roma woman from Košice told the researchers: "The nurses call us cigani [gypsies]. When they see us pregnant they say, 'You again! How many children do you want? We already have enough of you'."
3. Feb 2003 at 0:00 | Martina Pisárová