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!

Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week (AEAW) 2014 ~ Oct 17 – Oct 26, 2014

This year, the final AEAW, the calendar of events includes 14 opportunities to participate – Join us!

Alberta Eugenics Awareness Week (AEAW) 2014 ~ Oct 17 – Oct 26, 2014

Friday Oct 17 – Team Meeting, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada. 2-02A Assiniboia Hall (9:00 am – 11:30 am) then continues from 2:30 pm – 4:30 pm.

Friday Oct 17 – Persons’ Day Panel: Eugenic Survivors Share their Stories. Panelists: Leilani Muir, Judy Lytton, Glenn Sinclair. Noon – 1:00 pm. Henderson Hall, Rutherford South. Free & Wheelchair accessible.

Friday Oct 17 – Disintegration by CRIPSiE (Colloboravtive Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton) performances by people with disabilities at PCL Theatre 10330 – 84 Ave, tickets at the door ($15 or what you can pay) 8:00 pm

Saturday Oct 18 – Team Meeting, Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, 2-02A Assiniboia Hall (9:00 am – 2:00 pm). Lunch provided RSVP to moyra@ualberta.ca by Noon Oct 15.

Saturday Oct 18 – Disintegration by CRIPSiE (Colloboravtive Radically Integrated Performers Society in Edmonton) performances by people with disabilities at PCL Theatre 10330 – 84 Ave, tickets at the door ($15 or what you can pay) 8:00 pm

Monday Oct 20 – Surviving Eugenics in the 21st Century: Our Stories Told. Daytime showing for students and those who can not attend the evening. (doors at 11:15 am/film at 12:00 pm ) followed by a short discussion by people featured in the film. Metro Cinema at the Garneau, 8712 – 109 Street NW, Edmonton. Trailer: http://youtu.be/ysys-1bQQ9g; closed captioned. ASL interpretation available – contact Moyra; wheelchair access through the alley entrance. FREE!

Monday Oct 20 – Surviving Eugenics in the 21st Century: Our Stories Told Evening Show, with Q&A and a reception, (doors at 6:15 pm/film at 7 pm) Metro Cinema at the Garneau, 8712 – 109 Street NW, Edmonton. Trailer: http://youtu.be/ysys-1bQQ9g; closed captioned. ASL interpretation available – contact Moyra; wheelchair access through the alley entrance. FREE!

Tuesday Oct 21 – Across Communities Together (ACT) 2014: A Workshop for Connections & Change (9:00 am – 4:00 pm) By invitation. Co-sponsored with the Self Advocacy Federation (SAF).

Wednesday Oct 22 – Rob Wilson, The Role of Oral History in Surviving a Eugenic Past (12:00 pm – 1:00 pm) Tory Breezeway 2, Co-sponsored with the Department of History & Classics, University of Alberta. Free & Accessible.

Thursday Oct 23 – Colloquium, Eugenics and Philosophy, Panelists: Rob Wilson, University of Alberta, Josh St. Pierre, University of Alberta, (3:30 pm – 5:00 pm) 2-02A Assiniboia Hall. Free & Accessible.

Friday Oct 24 – Living Archives Interactive Website Release, 331 CAB (12:00 pm– 1:00 pm). Technical Team Lead Natasha Nunn along with Ben McMahon, Colette Leung, and Rob Wilson will demonstrate the website features and highlight the interactive aspects of the website. Participants can follow along and explore the site at computers throughout the demonstration. Free & Accessible.

Friday Oct 24 – Difference & Diversity: An Evening of Performances, featuring local artists, and performers. Education North 4-104. Doors at6:30 pm, performances at 7:00 pm. Free & Accessible. ASL interpretation available – contact Moyra.

Saturday Oct 25 – Sins Invalid, a film. Witness a performance project that incubates & celebrates artists with disabilities. CCIS 1 140 (Doors at 2:30, film at 3:00 pm) followed by a Q&A with Patty Berne via Skype. Co-sponsored with the John Dossetor Health Ethics Centre. Free & Wheelchair accessible, ASL Interpretation available – contact Moyra

Sunday Oct 26 – Writing the Wrongs: Alberta Authors Tell Our Eugenic Story – Three local writers: Leilani Muir, A Whisper Past (non-fiction); Theresa Shea, The Unfinished Child (fiction); David Cheoros, The Invisible Child (drama). Readings and reception (1:00 pm – 3:30 pm) Location TBA – contact Moyra. Free & Accessible.

ASL Interpretation can be arranged for any event by contacting moyra@ualberta.ca (780-248-1211) prior to the event.
Events are OPEN TO THE PUBLIC!

Professor Erika Dyck to be awarded – THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA WELCOMES THE INAUGURAL COHORT OF “THE COLLEGE”

The RSC has named the inaugural 91 members of The College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists. Those named to the College have been nominated by 51 Canadian universities and the National Research Council, and they represent the emerging generation of scholarly, scientific and artistic leadership in Canada.

Together, the members of the College will address issues of particular concern to new scholars, artists and scientists, for the advancement of understanding and the benefit of society, taking advantage of the interdisciplinary approaches fostered by the establishment of the College.

“This is an important moment in the history of the Royal Society of Canada,” said RSC President Graham Bell. “The College is Canada’s first national system of multidisciplinary recognition for the emerging generation of leaders.” Dr. Bell added, “Together, the members of the College will be in a position to provide guidance on issues of importance to Canadians, and to promote Canadian achievements in the arts, humanities and sciences around the world.”

The Presentation for this first cohort will take place on Friday, November 21 at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Quebec City, with a banquet to follow. These landmark events are proudly supported by Concordia University. To register for these events, please visit the Society’s website at http://www.rsc-src.ca

A complete list of the inaugural cohort of the College and their nomination citations is available here

Congratulations to Dr. Erika Dyck, the newest inaugural member of The Royal Society of Canada!

DYCK, Erika – Department of History, University of Saskatchewan
Erika Dyck (CRC) has earned a reputation as one of the world’s most active and thorough scholars studying the history of medicine. Her research has exposed many controversial medical research trends, particularly relating to eugenics and the use of psychedelic drugs in psychiatry. Several renowned scholars have described Dr. Dyck’s work as ground-breaking, and her research has given a voice to many marginalized communities that have been historically suppressed.

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

Research Profile: Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada

The Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta highlights researchers and research projects on their webpage. This month the Faculty of Arts highlights Professor Rob Wilson and the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada.

You can find the complete profile here:  Research Profile

This post should run for the month of October 2013 and then will be archived for later viewing. Check out the site today and see how Rob and the Living Archives teams are working towards creating change!