(WOMENSENEWS)--Romani women in eastern Slovakia have been subject to at least 110 forced and coerced sterilizations in government health care facilities since the fall of communism in 1989, according to a recent report by human rights investigators in New York and Slovakia. The report also says that Romani women have experienced physical and verbal abuse as well as segregated health care services, showing a pattern of ethnic bias in Slovak medical facilities.
Since the release of the report on Jan. 28, 2003, Slovak police have harassed some Romani women who had reported that they had been sterilized without their consent. The report's authors, based in Slovakia and New York, have had their records subpoenaed and have been subject to interrogations and threatened with criminal charges.
The report, "Body and Soul: Forced Sterilization and Other Assaults on Roma Reproductive Freedom," is based on 230 in-depth interviews conducted in 40 Roma settlements in eastern Slovakia, according to the report's authors, the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights (formerly the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy) and the Centre for Civil and Human Rights in Kosice, a Slovak non-governmental organization.
"Slovak health care providers throughout eastern Slovakia are complicit in the illegal and unethical practice of sterilizing Romani women without their informed consent," the report stated. "Physical and verbal abuse driven by racial hatred taints the Slovak health care system."
In response to the report, the government office in charge of human rights and minority affairs promised an investigation into the "unknown perpetrator," meaning the doctors who performed the sterilizations and announced criminal charges against authors of the report. The report's authors face possible charges of filing a false report. If their report proves true, they face charges of failing to notify the authorities of criminal activity.
"They're denying women their right to legal redress by intimidating them," said Christina Zampas, the Center for Reproductive Rights' legal advisor for Europe.
The report quoted one woman saying that, during a Caesarean section, when she was falling asleep, "a nurse came and took my hand in hers and with it she signed something." She added, "I do not know what it was. I could not check because I cannot read. I only know how to sign my name," the woman said. "When I was released from the hospital, I was only told that I would not have any more children."
A report last month by the United Nations Development Fund found that the living conditions of Europe's Roma population are "closer to levels in sub-Saharan Africa than those for other Europeans."
Nazi Germany targeted Europe's Roma, also known as Gypsies, for extermination during the Holocaust. Roma still face discrimination in health care, education, law enforcement and political representation. Under communism, Romani women were paid bribes to undergo sterilization.
Police and Government Harassment Has Increased as a Result of the Report
After being interrogated by police, at least one Romani woman has recanted her story that she was sterilized without her consent, said Barbora Bukovska, executive director of the Counseling Center for Citizenship, Civil and Human Rights, and co-author of the report.
The police summoned Bukovska for an interrogation, which she declined, she said. They have also demanded the center's records on women who spoke to human rights investigators on the condition of confidentiality.
"They came today and served papers that I give them the list of women," she said in a recent telephone interview from her office, "but we didn't give it to them."
The hospitals named in the report, many of them government-run facilities, have not been as considerate of the women's privacy.
Bukovska said that some hospitals where alleged abuses took place have provided police with lists of women who have had sterilizations there. The police have also interrogated women named in news reports, Bukovska said. The release of the report received extensive media attention in Slovakia and throughout Europe.
Human rights workers in Slovakia state that police officers have rounded up Romani women and told them that filing false reports carries a three year prison sentence.
"They come to the settlement, and they stand in the middle of the settlement, and they would call out these women that they had on the list, and they would put them in police cars and take them to the police station," Bukovska said.
Bukovska fears that police are interviewing women who underwent voluntary sterilizations to offset and discredit reports of involuntary sterilization.
The Slovakian center represents two women in a complaint of forcible sterilization against a government-run hospital in the eastern town of Krompachy. Romani women visiting the Krompachy hospital have been harassed by nurses and doctors angered by the charges, said Zampas and Bukovska.
The hospital has charged the Center for Reproductive Rights with libel, Agence-France Presse reported. But the center has not been formally notified of these charges, a spokesperson said last week. Bukovska fears that hospitals named in the report may destroy medical records of Romani women who may have been forcibly sterilized. In the past, charges against doctors by Romani women have been dismissed.
Slovakia is due to join the European Union in 2004. "Overshadowing this historic moment, however, is the Slovak government's continued denial of the human rights of minority Romani women," the report said. In mid-February, Jan Marinus Wiersma, the European Union's rapporteur for Slovakia, used a scheduled three-day visit to urge the Slovakian government to openly address the charges.
Slovakia's official census in 2001 reported almost 90,000 Roma. But Minority Rights Group International, a London-based non-governmental organization, estimated the number of Roma in Slovakia at 480,000 to 520,000, or between 9 percent and 10 percent of Slovakia's population, making the Roma the second largest minority in Slovakia, according the United Nations.
Asjylyn Loder is a freelance writer in New York.
For more information:
Center for Reproductive Rights--
"Body and Soul: Forced Sterilization and Other
Assaults on Roma Reproductive Freedom":