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OPINION: Doctors sterilised us because we're Roma

Thursday, 3 June 2021 22:00 GMT

Czech Roma activist Elena Gorolová, spokeswoman for the Group of Women Harmed by Forced Sterilisation, addresses the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly in Strasbourg, France, in April 2019. Credit: Council of Europe/Sandro Weltin

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Czech MPs have approved a bill to compensate women who were forcibly sterilised between the 1970s and 2000s

The Czech parliament's lower house passed a bill on Friday to compensate Roma and other women who have been forcibly sterilised. The bill will now go before the Senate. Czech Roma activist Elena Gorolová, a member of the Group of Women Harmed by Forced Sterilization, tells her story.

I was just 21 when doctors sterilised me straight after the Caesarian birth of my second son.

It was an extremely difficult birth and I was in great pain during labour. They gave me a sedative and then asked me to sign something. I had no idea what I was signing – at that moment I would have signed my own death warrant.

At no point did anyone discuss sterilisation with me, or even ask me if I knew what it meant.

Afterwards, when the doctor told me I’d never have any more children I was in shock. I began to cry. I couldn’t believe it. I had always wanted a little girl, my husband did too.

I felt less of a woman and it took me a long time to come to terms with everything.

Over the years I learnt that the same thing had happened to many other Roma women like me.

We started meeting in my hometown Ostrava, in the northeast of the Czech Republic, to support each other, raise public awareness about forced sterilisation, and fight for justice.

After 15 years of campaigning there is now a bill before parliament that would grant us compensation.

Some of the changes we‘ve been demanding have also happened. For example, the term “informed consent” is now used in hospitals.

Most sterilisations occurred during the communist era in the 1970s and 1980s, but they also continued afterwards. The last case we know of happened in 2007.

The sterilisations were mainly intended to stop Roma children being born so that there wouldn’t be more of us Roma than there are non-Roma.

Hospital staff have since told us that these sterilisations were ordered by the communist government at the time.

Some women like me were sterilised during Caesarians, but others were pressured or forced into it.

Sometimes social workers offered women money to be sterilised or threatened to take their children away unless they had the operation.

Over the years I’ve also been contacted by non-Romani women who were sterilised without their consent.

When we first began advocating for compensation in 2006, the non-Romani women didn’t want to be publicly associated with us. But in recent years they’ve joined forces with us and we are grateful to them for doing so.

I’m now in contact with about 200 women who were sterilised against their will. It has had a devastating impact on every one of us.

In the Roma community, it’s considered very shameful if you can’t have children. There are women in our group whose husbands divorced them afterwards.

Many have also had health complications and undergone hysterectomies. They still suffer health problems such as migraines, back pain and stress.

In 2009, the government of former prime minister Jan Fischer apologised for what had happened – or at least expressed regret that it had happened – but they did not offer compensation.

When we met Prime Minister Andrej Babiš in 2018 he told us that if we lobbied lawmakers to approve compensation, he wouldn’t have a problem with it. 

But we are still waiting.

The oldest women in our group are already in their 60s so it’s really important this is not held up any longer. Sadly, it’s already too late for some of the women.

The proposed compensation of 300,000 Koruna ($13,000) is quite ridiculous, but it would at least be an acknowledgement that our rights were violated.

Last year some of us shared our stories with Finance Minister Alena Schillerová who told us she would support us.

This is a struggle we must win. When they deprived us of the ability to give birth, they deprived us of one of the most beautiful experiences in the world.