Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-EUROPE: New Probe Into Forced Sterilisation

Pavol Stracansky

PRAGUE, Sep 20 2004 (IPS) - Czech officials are investigating claims that Roma women are still being forced to undergo sterilisation.

The Czech ombudsman’s office has said it is examining files handed over by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), a public interest law organisation monitoring the situation of Roma in Europe, claiming that the practice continues even though a perceived state-backed campaign to encourage sterilisation of Roma women ended with the fall of communism.

The Roma are a minority of Asian origin believed to have migrated to Europe since the 14th century. There are an estimated 12 million Roma in Europe, mostly in countries of the former Eastern bloc. Forced sterilisation among them has been a recurring issue.

"New cases have been discovered, mainly in the north Bohemian region, for example in the town of Most," Claude Cahn from the ERRC told the Czech daily Mlada fronta Dnes.

"Although the sterilisation programme ended after 1989, there are new cases where Roma women are not informed sufficiently, or the information that they would be stripped of fertility is given to them when they are giving birth or when they ask for painkillers during labour," Cahn said.

The Czech ombudsman’s office says investigations relate to cases where women are said to have undergone sterilisation without being fully informed.


"These are cases from the 1990s," deputy ombudsman Anna Sabatova told Czech media. "The complaints say that the women allegedly were not sterilised according to the law as they did not give their informed consent."

The ERRC says the cases it has turned over to the ombudsman are "not the only cases of coercive sterilisation of Roma women in the Czech Republic of which we are aware."

It says these are cases where several factors "including but not limited to the willingness of the victim to pursue legal measures under present conditions, our independent assessment of the victim’s ability to endure difficult legal proceedings, as well as a number of other factors, have converged to make formal complaints possible."

Under Czech law sterilisation can be carried out only if a woman has four children, or if she has three children but is over 35, or if a new pregnancy poses a threat to life. But in all cases a woman must request the operation.

The ERRC claim over forced sterilisation comes after Human Rights Watch and other groups reported in the 1990s that the practice had ended with the fall of communism in 1989.

It is widely believed that Roma women were coerced to undergo sterilization under communist state birth control programmes. Many Roma women were reportedly offered financial incentives.

Rights groups say the programme was a way of capping the population of the minority group. Birth rates among the Roma remain higher than in the rest of the Czech population.

The Roma minority in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, estimated at 300,000 and 500,000 respectively, say they are victims of systematic racial persecution and prejudice. They claim they are denied equal education opportunities and that they suffer from employment discrimination.

Reports of forced sterilisation in the Czech Republic come a year after the government in neighbouring Slovakia was forced to investigate claims by NGO groups of similar practices there.

A government investigation found no evidence to support the claims but NGOs said the investigation was not thorough enough.

The Czech government has already accused the ERRC of giving a wrong picture. "The European Roma Rights Centre has been making this claim for two years," government commissioner for human rights Jan Jarab told Czech Radio. "That is not true."

Jarab added: "I cannot say if there has or has not been an individual case of an involuntary sterilisation in a Roma or non-Roma woman, because first there would have to be an individual plaintiff and it would have to be investigated. Then if the authorities tried not to investigate this or cover it up, it could be said that the Czech Republic tolerates such a phenomenon."

Some doctors have also cast doubt on the ERRC claims. Vit Unzeitig from the Czech Gynaecological and Obstetrics Society told Mlada fronta Dnes that he has never come across a case of forced sterilisation though "it is true that at present doctors recommend sterilisation to women with many children but Roma women mostly refuse this."

 
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