Compensation to go to illegally sterilized women
Gov't human rights group in favor of payments to victims
Posted: February 29, 2012
In the wake of an official apology by Prime Minister Jan Fischer's caretaker government in 2009, Roma women who were illegally sterilized have secured a second major victory as the Government Council for Human Rights recommended Feb. 17 that those women receive financial compensation for their hardship.
"It is a small miracle that the resolution has been approved," Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková said. "I perceive this decision to be a huge success and a landmark ruling on the issue of unlawful sterilization."
The issue was opened by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) in 2004. Forced sterilization is a practice dating to the communist era whereby Roma women who had difficult births were often unknowingly sterilized in hospitals. Officials viewed the practice as a means of containing the Roma population. But in recent years, numerous revelations have pointed to a continuation of the practice well after the 1989 revolution, with evidence that sterilizations took place in the Czech Republic as recently as 2007. The ERRC has cited similar practices in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria.
Estimates on the number of Czech women illegally sterilized are hard to come by, but former Ombudsman Otakar Motejl documented 59 cases. The numbers are likely much higher. There remains a lack of documents available for use as evidence in such cases, as until the year 2007 there was no law dictating how long medical records must be kept before they could be destroyed.
The Human Rights Council recommendation backs a proposal from the Committee Against Torture and proposes compensating all women who have undergone involuntary sterilizations since 1972. In cases where the claim goes through the courts, the state should pay for lawyers to represent the affected women, the recommendation states.
The government has not yet officially put the issue on its agenda, and the council's recommendation is not legally binding.
The Czech cases have parallels with a practice in Sweden between 1934 and 1976, when an estimated 63,000 women were sterilized, with 2,067 eventually requesting and receiving compensation.
Šimůnková said a decision on how much compensation women are eligible for will be based on a judicial precedent in the Czech Republic as well as a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that awarded sterilized women in Slovakia some 31,000 euros. According to such a scale, affected Czech women would be eligible for between 300,000 and 400,000 Kč each.
"Even if we agreed to a lower sum eventually, the symbolic value of this act is much more important," Šimůnková said.
At present, the court is considering three Czech sterilization cases, of which two are expected to result in compensation.
Elena Gorolová, who was herself a victim of sterilization and now leads an advocacy group for such women, agrees.
"The exact amount of compensation is not the issue," she said. "We don't care about the exact amount. I am very glad the government is even addressing this issue at all. It's a small step, but an important one."
While Roma women are the most high-profile victims of forced sterilization, other socially disadvantaged groups, including the mentally disabled, have also been targeted, said David Záhumenský, director of the League for Human Rights, which runs a program providing free medical advice.
A general problem remains in that social workers and hospital personnel continue to bully patients into having procedures they may not want, he added.
"What is important is the need to change the attitude of doctors toward their patients," Gorolová said. "It is not sustainable that we are treated like objects incapable of making our own decisions."
A new law set to take effect April 2 will set more strict conditions on sterilizations while also allowing for elective sterilizations. Any woman older than 21 will have the option of undergoing a sterilization operation, regardless of medical history.
Christine Kovaříková can be reached at