Czech court rules in first-ever case heard on 'coercive sterilisation' of
Helena Ferencikova and her husband Jan always wanted to have a girl. But
the young Roma couple's simple dream may never be realised, for in October
2001 -- when she was just nineteen years old -- Mrs Ferencikova was
sterilised against her wishes, after giving birth to her second son. On
Friday, the regional court of Ostrava stopped short of awarding damages
but ruled that the hospital which performed the sterilisation owes Mrs
Ferencikova an apology. The court's decision, once finalised in writing,
would be the first finding in any Czech or Eastern European court of legal
violations concerning the coercive sterilisation of Roma women.
From the 1970s on, Roma (Gypsy) women were routinely sterilised in
Communist Czechoslovakia. There was an official policy in place to curb
the "high, unhealthy" birth rate of that minority group, which
authorities - and society at large - considered problematic. Social
workers were authorised to give state money to women who underwent
sterilisation - and are alleged to have use the threat of enforced foster
care to get reluctant Roma women to agree to the operation.
This policy was decried by the Czechoslovak dissident initiative Charter
77, and extensively documented in the late 1980s. The international
watchdog Human Rights Watch concluded in a 1992 report that the practice
ended in mid-1990 -- but in recent years, human rights groups in the Czech
Republic and Slovakia have unearthed evidence that doctors and hospital
staff continue to pressure Roma to undergo sterilisation.
In the case heard in Ostrava on Friday, doctors claimed they were right to
sterilise Helena Ferencikova because, after two caesarean sections, a third
would have endangered her health. The hospital in question intends to
appeal the court decision. Mrs Ferencikova says she was in the throes of
labour at the time and would have signed any paper doctors had put in
front of her; she didn't understand its contents and doctors ignored her
request to consult the matter with her husband.
Lawyer Michaela Tomisova is representing nearly seventy Roma women who
have filed complaints with the Czech Public Defender of Rights, or
"ombudsman's office", over sterilisations allegedly carried out
without their "full and informed" consent. She says that the
Ostrava court case set an important precedent: just because a woman signed
a release form, doesn't mean the procedure was legal.
"The case of Mrs Ferencikova is a typical case from the nineties or
early in this decade; what is quite alarming is that the commission
founded by the Ministry of Health found the case of Mrs Ferencikova
completely okay, without any violations. But the court expressed a
different view, and there are more cases very similar to this one
Helena Ferencikova was the first to have her day in court. Dozens more
cases are certain to follow, says Ms Tomisova, a lawyer retained by the
European Roma Rights Centre in Budapest and the League of Human Rights, a
Czech advocacy group.
Last year, faced with a public inquiry by the ombudsman, then Health
Minister Milada Emmerova appointed a commission to investigate the Romany
women's claims. In nearly every case, an interim report found, hospitals
had failed to follow elementary legal procedures and made "serious
errors" in the paperwork.