WHILE Slovakia's cabinet has begun delving into the details of its planned strategy for integrating the Roma minority, the country's political leaders, as well as the vast majority of its inhabitants, still seem to be missing the basic point - that their attitudes and behaviour towards the Roma are simply not acceptable.
Parliamentary leaders, for example, have made a series of strenuous denials of allegations brought early this year by human-rights groups that Slovak doctors have been wrongly sterilising Roma women. The authors of the report that contained the allegations claim that at least 110 Roma women have been sterilised at hospitals in east Slovakia in recent years against their will or without their consent. Deputy PM for minorities Pál Csáký swiftly promised an investigation and criminal prosecution, at least against the report's authors. If they're lying, said Csáky, it's libel, and if they're telling the truth, it's concealing information from the proper authorities.
When asked by police to come forward to aid the investigation, few of the sterilised Roma women were willing to put their names on the record. It would be natural for these women to be afraid that they would not be believed, and that they would suffer ill treatment by police and local administrations if they testified. Few Roma have forgotten that in 2001, Karol Sendrei was beaten to death while chained to a radiator at a police station in the Revúca district of east Slovakia.
Without the testimony of all the women, investigators took the names they had and turned to hospital records, which indeed contained forms signed by the patients authorising sterilisation, as well the approval of the appropriate hospital committee. Presumably, the sterilisations were also legal in cases where Roma women, as some claim, signed the document without being able to read it, while under the effects of anaesthetic or other medication, or after the operation had already been performed.
Investigators also found that some of the hospital records of Roma women had been marked with the letter R. The parliamentary taskforce, however, decided that this was not evidence of ethnic discrimination, as human-rights activists have long alleged, because the letter really stood for 'risky' rather than 'Roma'. Investigators did not say how many non-Roma women had had their records marked for similar riskiness.
Undoubtedly, there is no formal policy in Slovakia dictating that Roma be sterilised, or indeed discriminated against - that would be against the law. But the country does allow the perpetuation of unofficial yet institutional forms of segregation and discrimination, not only in health, but in education, employment, housing, and every other area of life.
It is not state policy but individual doctors who sterilise Roma women, individual school directors who deem Roma children 'retarded' if they don't speak perfect Slovak, individual managers who opt not to hire Roma workers, individual property owners who refuse to rent or sell to Roma, and individual police officers who have no qualms about chaining Roma to radiators and beating them. And individual Slovaks who don't see these practices as part of the problem. That is what is unacceptable.
14. Apr 2003 at 0:00