IPS NEWS AGENCY
BRATISLAVA — Rights activists are hoping a landmark announcement by the Czech government regretting forced sterilization of Roma women in the past will push politicians in neighboring Slovakia to follow suit.
The Czech government this week made a public statement of regret that Roma women were sterilized in the past without their full consent and said that safeguards had been drawn up to make sure nothing similar happens in the future.
Rights groups claim that from the 1970s until 1990, Romani women were systematically sterilized under a Czechoslovak government program aimed at reducing the "high, unhealthy" birth rate of Romani women.
But while the Czech government has now issued a statement of regret over the sterilizations, rights groups say Slovak politicians have not dealt with the issue.
Ostalinda Maya, women's issues specialist at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in Budapest, told IPS: "We have to hope that this move by the Czech government will push the Slovak authorities into doing more on this issue and compensate victims of forced sterilization."
Rights groups claim that authorities in the former Czechoslovakia coerced Roma women into sterilizations by offering them either large financial incentives or threatening that if they did not undergo the procedure their existing children would be taken away and put under state care.
Under communism the Roma, better known as gypsies, in the Czech Republic were largely seen as uneducated and backward and, while outwardly considered by the authorities as part of communist society, they were often looked down upon and treated as second-class citizens.
The practice came to light in 2003 when women began coming forward, claiming they had been victims of forced sterilization. More than 80 women in the Czech Republic lodged complaints with the country's ombudsman, and investigations revealed that official written records at local authorities dating back to the communist era contained recommendations that the "unwanted growth of Roma families" should be "restricted".
The ombudsman's report on investigations concluded that the sterilizations had not been individual isolated cases but coordinated.
Research by the ERRC found that some women had been sterilized without their knowledge while in other cases they had not given informed consent. Some complained they had been given papers they did not understand, and which sometimes were presented to them on the operating table.
The ombudsman found that the women's complaints were justified and that they had not given informed consent for the procedures.
But complications with the statute of limitations on the illegal sterilizations, scarcity of records dating back decades and a lack of legal aid have led to claims for compensation being rejected. All criminal charges have been dropped.
Victims' groups have welcomed the Czech authorities' expression of regret, describing it as a "milestone" they hope will open a path to "justice" for victims.
Elena Gorolova, spokeswoman for the Group of Women Harmed by Sterilization, told Czech media: "The apology means a first step towards long awaited justice, although much remains to be done."
But activists have attacked the Slovak government for not making a similar move.
When the claims of forced sterilization first emerged the government at the time pledged to carry out an investigation. Criminal investigations in 2003 and an investigation carried out by the health ministry concluded there was no evidence of forced sterilization. Another investigation in 2007 ended with the same statement.
But domestic and international rights groups criticized the investigations as not being independent.
"They need to create an independent commission to investigate this properly and then issue an apology and compensation to the victims," Vanda Durbakova, a lawyer with the Centre for Civil and Human Rights NGO who has defended Roma women in court cases over the sterilizations, told IPS.
Durbakova added: "It is symptomatic that in the Czech Republic where these practices also went on that the government has apologized. The stance of the Slovak political elite is opportunistic and short-sighted."
Slovak officials' continued claim that there is no evidence of forced sterilizations comes despite the Council of Europe issuing a statement in 2005 that Roma women were sterilized without their consent and the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women last year calling on Slovakia to accept responsibility for forced sterilizations.
Last week the United Nations Committee Against Torture criticized the Slovak government for its "passive" approach to investigating the sterilizations and called on it to launch an effective and unbiased investigation as well as to compensate the victims of the practice.
Durbakova said she was pessimistic as to whether the Czech government's public announcement would prompt any change in the Slovak government's stance on the issue. "We will have to wait and see, but I think it is unlikely.''
A European Court of Human Rights ruling in April upheld complaints by eight women who said their human rights had been breached when they were not granted full access to their medical records when they suspected they had been sterilized against their will. Slovak authorities appealed the ruling, but it was rejected last week and they have now been ordered to pay the women compensation.
The ERRC's Maya said she hoped the Czech government's statement and the European Court of Human Rights ruling would now force the Slovak government into more action on the issue.
"They have to do something because the Czechs have done something and even in Hungary, where cases of forced sterilization of Roma women, albeit not systematic, have been identified, one female victim of the practice has been compensated by the government.''
"There is only Slovakia left to address the issue now," Maya said.
Rights groups have meanwhile warned that while attention has been focused on systematic sterilizations under the communist regime, the practice did not die out in the 1990s.
Some of the most recent cases of claimed forced sterilization in the Czech Republic date back to just last year and Roma rights activists claim that in one case of 2007 social workers threatened to take a Roma mother's children away from her unless she had the operation.
Roma are among the largest minorities in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, numbering hundreds of thousands in each state, although their exact numbers are uncertain because many do not register their ethnicity on national census forms. Roma claim that they are subjected to continued persecution and racism at all levels of society.
Activists say that while there is no suggestion that the practice today is part of a systematic program, doctors are being motivated to perform sterilizations amid racist attitudes to Roma that are as rife in society now as they were more than 30 years ago.
"The systematic sterilization program ended with the fall of communism. But we know that after that there were still forced sterilizations, some very, very recently. There is still a strong degree of racism towards the Roma that exists in [Czech and Slovak] society," said Maya.