Forced Sterilization of Romani Women

“I decided to come out with my story so that it doesn’t happen to other women, to our children, to our grandchildren. So that they never find themselves in the situation I am in today.”

Elena Gorolova, victim of forced sterilization, interview for Romedia’s I’m a Roma Woman campaign

Elena Gorolova

Between 1971 and 1991 in Czechoslovakia, now Czech Republic and Slovakia, the “reduction of the Roma population” through surgical sterilization, performed without the knowledge of the women themselves, was a widespread governmental practice. The sterilization would be performed on Romani women without their knowledge during Caesarean sections or abortions. Some of the victims claim that they were made to sign documents without understanding their content. By signing these documents, they involuntarily authorized the hospital to sterilize them. In exchange, they sometimes were offered financial compensation or material benefits like furniture from Social Services – though it was not explicitly stated what this compensation was for. The justification for sterilization practices according to the stakeholders was “high, unhealthy” reproduction.

They sterilized thousands of Roma women in this way. The Czech ombudsman estimated that more than 90,000 women from former Czechoslovakia became infertile as a consequence of such interventions. If the evidence for such treatments performed in the past is not alarming enough, there seems to be proof that this practice was not only common during the Communist era: there are women reporting the same crime in post-Communist times as well, even after Czechoslovakia split into Czech Republic and Slovakia. In what is today Slovakia, 1000 Roma women and girls were sterilized annually in the 1980s. Unfortunately, the practice of forced sterilization in this region of Europe seems to persist to some extent, with cases emerging in other countries as well.

The European Roma Rights Centre pointed at two cases of Romani women who were sterilized in Hungary without their consent. One of them relates back to 2001, when a young woman, A.S. accused a hospital for sterilizing her without her knowledge. Following eight years of intensive lobbying, with several organizations started pressuring the government, in 2009 the Hungarian state compensated A.S. The court acknowledged that the surgery was performed without her knowledge, but it also claimed that the surgery did not harm A.S.’s reproductive capacity as the sterilization was purportedly “reversible”. The second case taken up by ERRC is still in process, as it was rejected in the first instance by the Hungarian Court.[1]

The victims of forced sterilization have begun to speak out against these crimes by creating a movement to stop forced sterilization and bring justice to the victims in the Czech Republic as well. Czech Romani activist Elena Gorolova was one of those who started the movement by founding Group of Women Harmed by Forced Sterilization. She is a victim too, sterilized while having her second child in 1990. Mrs Gorolova, like many other Romani women, was not able to file a civil lawsuit because the deadline for seeking legal action had already expired. Nevertheless, she tried to pursue legal justice with other women, moving her case from the local to the national and international level. They organized demonstrations, such as the one in Ostrava in front of the hospital infamous for sterilizing Romani women in large numbers. Elena is one of the eighty-seven women who sent their complaints to the Czech ombudsman, reporting forced sterilization. In December 2005, in his final statement on the issue, the ombudsman declared that sterilizations performed on Romani women are illegal.[2]

The story of Elena and the others is not the first policy of compulsory sterilization in history. The first was documented in the US in the beginning of the 20th century. African-American women were sterilized against their will, many of them without their knowledge, while they were in a hospital for other reasons or sometimes even while serving a prison sentence. More than 65,000 individuals were sterilized in 33 states in the framework of compulsory sterilization programs. This US policy was followed by several other countries, including Canada, Russia and Germany, that approved compulsory sterilization as a governmental practice.

In the case of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, many lawsuits ended with the victory of the victims of sterilization. However, most of the pursuers kept their identity secret or the outcome of the case was not made public for other reasons. Elena Ferencikova was the first Roma women to sue the Czech Health Authority in 2005 for the damages she suffered when they sterilized her at the age of only nineteen.[3] The court didn’t decide on financial compensation but the hospital where they performed the intervention apologized for sterilizing Elena without her agreement, damaging her future and her harming her status in her community. At the time of the intervention, she was a young bride, with the dream of having a big family.

Until the most recent past, over 87 Romani women filed an official complaint against the Czech health authority The first action on the government’s behalf was an apology in 2009 during a press conference, followed by the report from the Czech Ombudsman about the illegality of the practice in 2005.[4]

Among the individual cases which ended in favor of the victims is that of Iveta Červeňáková who sued the Czech Republic for sterilizing her about fourteen years ago. Her case was in front of the Ostrava Regional Court for one million Czech crowns compensation, since she never requested the surgery. After losing the case, the hospital appealed to the High Court in Olomouc, claiming that her right for financial compensation expired and she can only win an apology. But their statement was not accepted and the Czech Supreme Court decided that Ms Červeňáková still has the right for financial compensation. The case was concluded with an out of court settlement between the hospital and the victim. The details are confidential between the two parties. [5]

The above case seems to be rather typical: the content of out of court settlements is not made public and the reason that women gained mere apologies from the hospitals is usually due to an allegedly expired right for financial compensation. On the other hand, there are cases whose outcome was made public, like one from 2012: the court made the decision that the government was at fault and the woman in question should receive a compensation of EUR 10,000.[6]

Looking at several cases of forced sterilization, a serious infringement of human rights is what should be emphasized, as reflected also by the recommendations from the NGOs’ side, the ERRC and the Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková, who all stress the need for developing a compensation mechanism for all victims of sterilization. A well-functioning mechanism is needed since not all victims are literate enough, have the financial sources, or the knowledge to ask for justice in court. Majority of Czech ministers agreed and a mechanism should be developed by the end of 2013, as part of the already existing legal framework. However, there is a concern that many of the affected women will still be excluded from the opportunity to gain justice.[7]

To add a personal perspective on the issues at stake, I see many reasons justify the need for the government to develop a compensation mechanism. For instance, trends show they are losing cases on the international level. Developing such a mechanism would mean that the cases would remain on the local or national level. Another reason could be financial: whatever compensation mechanism the government develops, the amount of compensation is not equivalent to the cases decided by the European Court of Human Rights. The third reason could be that authorities are trying to escape the negative backlash caused by not assuming responsibility and not criminalizing this governmental practice. In conclusion, the development of a compensation mechanism could keep “embarrassing” cases from reaching international publicity, which could lead to public ignorance if no one realizes how many actual victims there are and in what circumstances these crimes happened.

Of course, one could also argue that after years of injustice affecting hundreds of women, the fact that some women will receive justice might pave the way for others. Still, the question must be asked: is this enough? Is compensation enough? I am concerned that whatever compensation they eventually receive, the truly important development would be if governments themselves are seriously pushed to criminalize forced sterilization: only this could prevent these horrible stories from repeating themselves.

While human rights can be violated by individuals or by institutions, they can only be defended by institutions. The European Court of Human Rights does not deal with single individuals who have committed crimes. Rather, it focuses on why the government in question could not take action against what happened. But where are the doctors, politicians and all the people who personally contributed to or carried out such surgeries, and when they are going to take responsibility for their actions? In order to take action against this human rights violation, blaming the Communist regime is not enough. The practice continues today and forcibly sterilized Romani women are still a long way from receiving true justice.

Written by: Galya Stoyanova, Romani intern at Romedia Foundation

[1] Albert, Gwendolyn. “Forced Sterilization and Romani Women’s Resistance in Central Europe.” Forced Sterilization and Romani Women’s Resistance in Central Europe. N.p., 2011. <http://popdev.hampshire.edu/sites/popdev/files/uploads/u1149/DT_71_Albert.pdf&gt;.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Holt, Ed. Roma women reveal that forced sterilization remains. N.p., 12 Mar. 2005. Web. <http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)71063-1/fulltext&gt;.

[4] Decade of Roma Inclusion . Czech Prime Minister Apologizes to Victims of Coercive Sterilization. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2013. <http://www.romadecade.org/czech_prime_minister_apologizes_to_victims_of_coercive_sterilization&gt;.

[5] Stop Torture in Healthcare. <http://www.stoptortureinhealthcare.org/news-and-resources/forced-sterilization/czech-hospital-pays-romani-woman-forcibly-sterilized-14-year&gt;

[6] ROMEA. Czech Gov. compensates another woman over illegal sterilization. N.p., 11 Dec. 2012. Web. 1 Feb. 2013. <http://www.romea.cz/en/news/czech/czech-govt-compensates-another-woman-over-illegal-sterilization#&gt;.

[7] Open Society Foundations. Against her will – Forced and coerced sterilization of women worldwide.

<http://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/sites/default/files/against-her-will-20111003.pdf&gt;

Living Archives Interactive Website World Wide Release

The Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada has launched the ‘long awaited’ website on Friday Oct 24, 2014. You can explore the website now by typing in this URL: http://eugenicsarchive.ca/

BIG thanks to the technical team, Natasha Nunn (Tech team lead), Ben McMahen, and Colette Leung! Numerous Living Archives team members have contributed to the content.

In the weeks to come the site will be filled with more content as articles are still being returned from reviews and a few section are stil be worked on.

Please share the website and watch for new additions to come!

Introducing the “Did I Stutter?” blog

Earlier this year, Josh St. Pierre and Zach Richter started the very cool website and blog “Did I Stutter?”.  For and about people who stutter, and run by two savvy PWSs, the blog should get some attention from those reading Living Archives / What sorts posts.  With the most recent post, “Eugenics and the Cure for Stuttering”, Josh makes some of the connections here more overt:

Being from Alberta and knowing about our shameful eugenic history colours the search for a stuttering cure for me. As well intentioned as it may seem, a “cure” for stuttering cannot be separated from the idea and practise of eugenics that assumes the world would be a better place without disability, without us. We already screen for Down Syndrome since we have decided some lives are more valuable than others. In 20 years might we screen foetuses for stuttering?

You can read the whole post here .

Exploring Eugenics: a Workshop

Friday September 12, 2014, 10:30 am – Noon, at Concordia University, Montreal (PR-100, at 210 MacKay Street)

In this interactive workshop that should appeal to students and researchers from a range of disciplines—including philosophy, history, science studies, sociology, education, biology—Rob Wilson will lead participants through a hands-on introduction to the multi-media, developmental website of the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada project (www.eugenicsarchives.ca). Team members have worked with eugenics survivors and a variety of community partners over the past four years to build a range of educational resources for exploring the largely unknown history of eugenics in Canada. The developmental website, which will go public later in the Fall, is structured around about 10 modules and includes survivor video narratives, a look at eugenics ‘around the world’, a connections module that provides a ’mind map’ of eugenics concepts, and a eugenics timeline. The workshop will provide an introduction and overview of (a) the project, (b) the history of eugenics and its connection to contemporary ideas and policies, and (c) the educational tools themselves. Participants will benefit most if they can bring a laptop, though this is not required to participate.

Rob Wilson is Professor of Philosophy and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta, and the principal investigator of the CURA-funded Living Archives project. Rob works in various areas of philosophy, including the philosophy of mind and cognitive science, the philosophy of biology, the history of philosophy, and disability studies, and his workshops and lectures are typically aimed at a broad interdisciplinary audience. He is director of Philosophy for Children Alberta, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and currently serves as the program co-chair for the next meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology, to will be held in Montreal in July 2015. Rob will also be giving a philosophy colloquium on Friday, 12th September, at 3.30, ‘Knowing Agency from the Margins’ (http://philosophy.concordia.ca/).

A Whisper Past: Childless after Eugenic Sterilization in Alberta by Leilani Muir

Leilani Muir, eugenic survivor has written her biography and launched it at the Alberta Gallery of Art on May 24, 2014. The event was hosted by the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada (http://eugenicsarchive.ca/). Leilani was the first person to file a successful law suit against the province of Alberta, Canada for wrongful sterilization under the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta.

Muir lived in several small towns in Alberta until she was sent to the Red Deer institution. The education she received there did not prepare her for life on the outside, but after she left the institution and escaped from her mother’s custody and at the age of 20, she learned quickly and worked in several cities in Western Canada as a waitress, a retail sales person, and a baby sitter, caring for as many as six children at one time. Only when she married did she learn the awful truth about the sterilization. After winning her case in court, her story was featured in a documentary by the National Film Board of Canada. She spoke at several public forums in Canada, The United States and France, and she ran for election to the Alberta legislature for the New Democratic Party. Recently she was designated a Game Changer on the CBC radio show The Currents, and her story was dramatized in the play The Invisible Child at the Edmonton Fringe theatre festival. She now serves as a governing board member for the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, a Community-University Research Alliance project at the University of Alberta. Leilani’s story educates us about Canada’s eugenic past and raises awareness about the on-going discrimination against people with disabilities.

You can get a copy of Leilani’s book “A Whisper Past” online at: http://www.friesenpress.com/bookstore/title/119734000013125148/Leilani-Muir-A-Whisper-Past

cropped book cover

Watch for “Surviving Eugenics in the 21st Century: Our Stories Told” a film highlighting the experiences of eugenic survivors, featuring Leilani and others including several local people with disabilities. The film and reception will be held at the Metro Cinema, in Edmonton on Monday October 20, 2014 as part of Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week 2014. For more details about AEAW 2014 and the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada go to our website: http://eugenicsarchive.ca/#events-section

Truth & Reconciliation Commission – Edmonton March 27 – 30, 2014

For 116 years, thousands of Aboriginal children in Alberta were sent to Indian Residential Schools funded by the federal government and run by the churches. They were taken from their families and communities in order to be stripped of language, cultural identity and traditions.

Canada’s attempt to wipe out Aboriginal cultures failed. But it left an urgent need for reconciliation between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples.

There were more Indian Residential Schools in Alberta than in any other province. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) is holding its Alberta National Event in Edmonton this year.

Come and share your truth about the schools and their legacy. Witness and celebrate the resilience of Aboriginal cultures.
(excerpt from TRC.ca)

Alberta National Event – March 27 – 30, 2014 will be held in Edmonton at the Shaw Conference Centre 9797 Jasper Avenue. No registration needed to attend. Those wishing to provide a statement to the Commission may register onsite during the event.

You can download the program click here

On Thursday March 20 from 3:00 pm – 5:00 pm at the University of Alberta, Lister Centre, Maple Leaf Room
Understanding the TRC: Exploring Reconciliation, Intergenerational Trauma, and Indigenous Resistance featuring:

Commissioner Dr. Wilton Littlechild
Dr. Rebecca Sockbeson
Dr. Ian Mosby
James Daschuk
Dr. Keavy Martin
Tanya Kappo
Moderated by Jodi Stonehouse

Reception 5:00 pm – 6:00 pm – Tea, bannock and berries. Event is free.

Gala Reading featuring:
Marilyn Dumont
Daniel Heath Justice
Eden Robinson
Gregory Scofield
Anna Marie Sewell
Richard Van Camp

Friday, March 21 from 7:30 pm – 9:30 pm in Humanities Centre L-1 (111th Street and Saskatchewan Drive)
Giveaways. Books for sale. Free Admission

You find this information and links to campus maps here

Edmonton to host national residential schools truth and reconciliation event

On January 20th in the Edmonton Journal, Willie Littlechild announced that that the TRC will be in Edmonton this March. Here is the article with a few more details.

Edmonton will host the final national event in March for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission dealing with Canada’s residential schools legacy.

The March 27-30 event, open to the public at the Shaw Conference Centre, is expected to attract up to 4,000 people a day to learn about the history of the schools, talk about their experiences and take part in cultural activities.

“It’s almost the start of reconciliation … It’s not the end of it,” commissioner Willie Littlechild told the city’s community services committee Monday.

Alberta had about 25 residential schools, more than any other province. They operated in Canada from the 1870s to 1996, Littlechild said.

There are about 12,000 survivors living in the province, the largest proportion of them in Edmonton, he said.

“It’s an opportunity to many to begin their healing journey,” said the former Conservative MP, who spent more than a decade in the residential school system.

“Every citizen of Canada is affected by this history.”

The committee recommended Edmonton contribute $250,000 in cash and services to the event’s $2-million budget, which city council will vote on next week.

The city, which put in a bid about three years ago, was chosen as host for the Alberta national event over Calgary, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Grande Prairie, Littlechild said.

Mayor Don Iveson called it an “extraordinary opportunity” to hear about aboriginal history and begin the process of reconciliation.

The six other Canadian cities that hosted the previous national events contributed to their cost, he said.

“This is really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It arises from some fairly horrific historical circumstances; however, this is about learning from that and where we go as a community,” he said.

“We still have a phenomenal amount of work to do. This is a step. It may be symbolic, but sometimes symbolism is very, very important.”

About 150,000 aboriginal children were sent by the federal government over decades to church-run schools, where many faced physical and sexual abuse.

A lawsuit against the federal government and churches resulted in a settlement that included payments to those affected and creation of the commission in 2008.

Its job is to hold public hearings so people can tell their stories, collect records and establish a national research centre.

gkent@edmontonjournal.com