WOMEN: Slovakia Plays God (06/03)

Thirty years ago, when the late Dr. Helen Rodriguez-Trias exposed the forced sterilization of Latina women, the international women’s health community sprang into action to end medical abuses that impinged upon women’s reproductive rights. Now that community is being called to act again.

A report, released jointly in January by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights and the Center for Civil and Human Rights in the Slovak city of Kosice, alleges that Roma, or Gypsy, women in Slovakia are being subjected to forced sterilization. The report, Body and Soul: Forced Sterilization and Other Assaults on Roma Reproductive Freedom, claims that “coerced and forced sterilization practices continue in Slovakia,” along with other forms of discrimination against Roma women in Slovak maternal health services.

Roma constitute about 10 percent of the population of Slovakia, and their numbers are growing more rapidly than that of white Slovaks. The low social status of Gypsies is of deep concern to the European Union, which is slated to admit the country next year. Largely due to that, European Parliament correspondent for Slovakia Jan Marinus Wiersma has called on her government to “deal with the report thoroughly…and to provide answers.”

Among the alleged abuses revealed in interviews with 230 women from 40 Roma settlements, sterilization without fully informed consent ranks at the top. “The testimony we found was disturbingly consistent,” reported team coordinator Christina Zampas of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

One example is 19-year-old Ingrid, who testified that five days after a Caesarean birth, when complications occurred, “a doctor checked me. He told me that my tubes were tied, that I was sterilized and I would have no more children.”

Renata, 32, also delivered by C-section. Five days later, she was told by a doctor that she had to sign a form before leaving the hospital. When she asked why, he said she had been sterilized and wouldn’t be having any more children. “I was shocked,” she said. “Then I was angry. I asked him how he dare do something like that when I hadn’t asked for it.”

Delivery by C-section is a frequent occurrence among Roma women. Many advocates charge this is part of a strategy to control the Gypsy population. In addition to conducting sterilizations during Caesarean birth, doctors also advise women against more than two C-sections. (Vaginal birth after section isn’t an option). At the same time, information about contraception is seldom offered.

Other abuses include “systematic and glaring racial discrimination” in maternity wards and gynecology departments. Roma women report being prohibited from using the same toilets or dining rooms as other patients. Some have talked about verbal and physical abuse, including rape attempts.

The government has promised to investigate allegations of abuse. Yet a spokesman for the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for minority rights has dismissed the findings, saying that similar claims have never proven true. The head of one maternity ward declared the report “a load of nonsense,” and many doctors have refused to talk about the matter. Some claim that since women have taken money for sterilization, there’s no case. Others even suggest that advocacy organizations have paid women to say they signed permissions under duress.

According to a Bratislava newspaper, the government’s human rights office has considered filing a complaint for scaremongering. A hospital in Krompachy has threatened to sue the Center for Reproductive Rights for libel. Proving libel may be difficult, however. A 1992 Human Rights Watch report said that many Roma women were lured into sterilization without fully understanding the consequences, and a 2001 report by the Open Society Institute in Hungary presented further evidence that coerced sterilization was common practice in some areas of eastern Slovakia.

Signs of backlash are accumulating. Police and health employees are reportedly intimidating Roma women into not giving evidence of their forced sterilization. Since the release of the report, women have been threatened with imprisonment if they file a criminal complaint against health employees, according to Slovakia’s Consultancy for Civic and Human Rights. In at least one settlement, police have rounded up Roma women to interrogate them, and pregnant Roma in hospitals report increases in verbal abuse and humiliation.

The report reminds the country that, “as a future member state of the European Union, Slovakia has committed itself to Ôthe rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities’.” Christina Zampas, legal advisor for the Center for Reproductive Rights, adds, “These egregious practices violate fundamental human rights and the Slovak government must publicly acknowledge these violations, conduct an investigation and prosecute those responsible.”

As a Feb. 7 editorial in The Slovak suggests, the government is now under pressure to “make it clear to the international community, without delay, that it takes human rights abuses seriously…the government cannot afford to be seen to be shrugging its collective shoulders with the air of a man who wonders what all the fuss is about.”