By Dinah A. Spritzer
Sunday, July 24, 2005
Roma women in the Czech Republic say the communist practice of sterilizing "undesirables" survived beyond 1989. Authors of a government report on the charges, due out soon, acknowledge flaws with the medical-consent procedures.
OSTRAVA, Czech Republic (WOMENSENEWS)--Alena Gordova was 21 in 1990 when she was due to have her second child, and her second cesarean.
The doctor at Vitkovice Hospital in Ostrava, a Czech city near the Polish border, told her that her second birth was going to be particularly complicated as her child risked being strangled by the umbilical cord.
"He told me just before the birth that I needed a sterilization and I was not sure what that meant. Then he put a piece of paper in front of my face and said, 'Sign.' I was tired, stressed out and, as is the custom here, I did what I was told."
After the birth Gordova told Women's eNews that she wanted to talk to someone at the hospital about the operation but that no one would explain what had happened or what exactly sterilization meant.
"I felt like I had been ruined deep inside, but had nowhere to turn."
She stayed silent about her experience for years, but like at least 70 other Roma women in the Czech Republic in similar predicaments, she finally made her ordeal known.
Earlier this year the sterilized women publicly accused state-run hospitals that they had been sterilized during the last 15 years without their consent
In the wake of the charges, the health ministry drafted in June new legislation that would more tightly regulate all medical consent procedures as well as restricting sterilization. The bill is still in its early stages and not yet approved by the Cabinet.
Many Roma women say they may have signed a paper indicating consent, but they did not understand what they were signing because it was not explained to them, or else they signed it under intense pressure just before giving birth. They claim they were specifically targeted because of their race. So far, one woman has filed a criminal lawsuit against a hospital. Others are demanding official acknowledgement of the problem.
The government began investigating the charges this year.
With findings due at the end of the summer, officials looking at the Roma cases have begun acknowledging flaws in the country's approach to medical consent.
"It is true that in the majority of cases we are looking at, proper procedures--the step-by-step consent process that makes sure patients have full knowledge of what is happening to them--was not applied," said Anna Sabatova, a deputy in the Czech Ombudsman's office, one of two government bodies reviewing the Roma women's accusations.
"I am not talking about big violations," Sabatova said and described it as being of an administrative nature. "But in such serious questions of consent, it was clear that not all of the proper paperwork was done."
Katka Jacques is a member of the government human rights council as well as a special committee set up by the Ministry of Health, the other group investigating the sterilization cases.
"I am convinced that the low education level of these women in combination with an insufficient and unprofessional explanation of what sterilization means resulted in these women having an operation that they did not want," Jacques said.
As the Czech government has acknowledged in recent years in the wake of critical reports by human rights organizations, Roma--who are also known by the denigrating "gypsy" label--are subject to widespread discrimination in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in the Eastern Europe.
A recent survey publicized widely in the Czech Republic found that nearly 80 percent of Czechs would not want a Roma as a neighbor. The Roma unemployment rate hovers around 90 percent and very few attend university or even high school as most are shuttled from childhood into special schools for the mentally disabled.
Government experts estimate that Roma comprise approximately 1 percent to 2 percent of the 10.2 million people living in the Czech Republic. A great number of Roma live in municipal housing projects that are in deplorable conditions, often with broken windows and decaying interiors.
Concerns that Roma women were sterilized without their consent in post-Communist Czech Republic were raised by Roma advocacy groups in the 1990s, but it was not until earlier this year that actual victims--encouraged by several Roma advocacy groups--began to talk publicly about their experiences and demand justice.
It was common practice during the communist era for Czechoslovakia to sterilize women the government deemed undesirables, and this meant Roma, said Claude Cahn, program director at the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest, which first helped bring the 70 women's cases to the government's attention.
The sterilizations were carried out in the 1980s in return for money, often for as little as $20, hospital records show.
Jana Bogliyova of Frydek Mystek claims that even after the country's transition to democracy other means were also used to coerce women to not have children.
In 1996 when she was due to have her seventh child, she says a social worker told her to get sterilized or lose her children.
"I had a seventh child and they took my kids away. But then I was sterilized and later I got the kids back," she said.
These practices were expected to have been swept away with the 1989 so-called Velvet Revolution that ushered in a new era of human rights.
Kumar Vishwanathan is a longtime supporter of Roma rights and a social worker in Ostrava, who works with Roma women who claim to have been sterilized without their consent since 1989.
"In Czech and Slovak societies, Roma are looked down upon, are thought to have too many children, are viewed as uneducated and lazy, so therefore their reproductive rights are relegated to the bottom of the barrel," he said.
Most doctors, said Viswanathan, were raised under communism and maintain the negative attitudes of the previous generation.
Libor Kavan, a respected Czech gynecologist and head of the obstetrics department at the maternity hospital of Vrchlabi, is angered when asked if it is possible that a bias against Roma might influence how doctors treat them.
"No Czech gynecologist would sterilize a Roma woman, or any woman, against her will. Any suggestion otherwise is pure editorializing," he said.
But it's not so black and white, according to Olga Gajicova, founder of Aperio, a Prague-based nongovernmental organization focused on obstetrics.
"I don't think it's so much a question of discrimination against Roma or use of Nazi eugenics," she said. "It's about what constitutes informed consent and the lack of partnership between doctor and patient in our country."
But Kavan expressed exasperation at the Roma women's accusations.
"Some woman who has had four or five children and then has had herself sterilized decides she could make some money off of it and claims that she wasn't properly informed or gave her consent after stress," he said.
Gordova, the Roma woman from Ostrava sterilized 15 years ago, said she realizes that many others share Kavan's suspicions.
"People can think what they want. I know that what was done to me was not my choice," she said. "I lost something no one can give me back."
Dinah A. Spritzer is news editor of The Prague Post and is also a correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. She contributes articles to The New York Times, Elle Magazine, The Independent in London, The Irish Examiner and The Boston Herald.
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