Roma women endure flood of emotions after years of seeking justice
The government expressed its regret to Roma women who were sterilized without their consent but admitted the practice may still be taking place. Human Rights and Minorities Minister Michael Kocáb told The Prague Post the decision to address the issue had the complete backing of the Cabinet, but it was just a small step on the way to ensuring full human rights for all citizens.
“The situation will not change tomorrow or the day after, but this is a step, a small step, in helping all minorities in the Czech Republic,” he said. “This government saw something wrong and tried to change it. It may be a caretaker government, but we knew we could act on this issue.”
As Prime Minister Jan Fischer issued the official statement at Government House just after 3:30 p.m. Nov. 23, Roma women who had traveled from Ostrava for the occasion burst into applause. They arrived in Prague at 11:30 a.m. for a series of meetings with Fischer, Kocáb and other government ministers. Lunch was put aside (though tea and coffee were served in abundance) due to the intensity of the meetings, and the enormity of what was about to happen – a public state acknowledgement of the abuse they suffered at the hands of medical staff – became apparent.
Fischer spoke the words that the women, their families, supporters and many other people had been longing to hear: “We would like to express regret for what happened. It was a huge failure.”
After Fischer spoke, Kocáb took to the podium. “The government was silent on this issue for too long; now, the Fischer government has finally addressed it.”
While the government stopped short of officially terming the announcement an apology, Kocáb was adamant this was absolutely the case, as was Elena Goralová, chairwoman of the Sterilized Women’s League.
“I had this dream that one day people would know about what was happening and that our goal to receive a public apology would be realized. It happened today,” she said.
Kocáb then said sterilizations without consent may still be taking place.
“I have heard rumors that sterilizations are still being carried out on women without their full consent and knowledge. We will change the legislation so that any patient who is offered a paper to sign has to know and understand what kind of procedure is involved.”
The sterilization not only damaged the women physically and emotionally, it also tore families asunder.
“At last, an apology,” Nataša Bartošová said. “I already had four kids, but, after the procedure took place, my husband left me. It completely destroyed my life. It happened in 1991. After giving birth, I woke up and there was a hole in my belly, and the explanation I got from my gynecologist shocked me: I had been sterilized while giving birth in a coma. The government’s apology is a major victory.”
In 2005, the women who were subjected to the procedure decided to “stop being afraid” and organized themselves, Goralová said. “The ombudsman made a list of all the cases [80 have been proved, and at least 20 await final confirmation] and started to work on it.”
Ombudsman Otakar Motejl also insisted the announcement is not the end of the journey.
“I endorse the government’s decision; however, this is only the first step,” he said. “No medical procedure can be done without the patient’s consent. To ensure patients are treated with dignity and their opinions are taken into consideration, the public needs to realize that.”
– Klára Jiřičná contributed to this report.