Elena Gorolová was 21 when she gave birth to her second son. “The doctor told me I would need to deliver via a C-section otherwise I would be risking the health of me and the baby.”
In the delivery room, a nurse gave her papers to sign. “I was in so much pain … I was in no state to think about what I was signing,” says the social workerfrom the Czech Republic. She had unknowingly signed an agreement to be sterilised.
Until now, the Czech government has not officially acknowledged or compensated Roma women such as Gorolová for a government-led eugenics agenda from the early 1970s until it was officially abolished in 1993. No one knows how many women were affected. The European Roma Rights Centre says hundreds of women were systematically sterilised throughout the 1990s with the last-known case as recently as 2007.
Now a discussion of a proposed law to allow victims of coercive sterilisation to apply for reparations is scheduled for the next parliamentary session on Wednesday. A draft bill from 2019 proposing a £10,200 payment to victims never reached the statute books.
The Roma are the largest minority in the Czech Republic, with an estimated population of 250,000.
Gorolová only became aware that her fallopian tubes had been severed permanently after the procedure, when doctors told her what the papers she had signed were. She cried when she learned that the surgery was irreversible. “I always wanted to have a little girl. I did not understand what sterilisation meant; I had never heard of it. I felt horrible and worthless.
“My husband was so angry with the doctors, but also with me. He thought I had somehow arranged for this without telling him,” she says. “Having many children is one of the core values of Romani culture. I felt ashamed and betrayed by the doctors I entrusted my life to.”
It took the couple several years to fully accept what had happened. They tried looking for answers at their local social care department, but “the clerks we spoke to were rude, and no one bothered to talk to us”.
In 2004, she found a group of women with similar stories. “It felt so much better knowing that I wasn’t alone in this struggle, it also gave me an incentive to fight back,” she says.
The group sought an official apology from the state as well as financial compensation. Gorolová spoke at the UN in 2015.
But despite continuous international pressure, little has been done to bring justice and the Czech government’s inaction has been condemned by the UN, the European commission against racism and intolerance, and, last September, by Dunja Mijatović, the EU human rights commissioner, who urged the adoption of a bill to help women who had been affected.
“The Czech state is 100% responsible, as they enabled licensing for doctors who sterilised women without their consent,” says Gwendolyn Albert, an American human rights activist and writer.
“This attempted genocide of the Roma wasn’t a one-size-fits-all procedure,” she adds. Some women were promised them monetary rewards by their social workers, while others were told their children would be taken away if they did not comply.
Others, like Gorolová, only learned about what had happened later. “It was often explained as a form of birth control. One woman I spoke to hadn’t realised what had happened to her until seven years after the fact. She thought she had undergone a C-section and was given an IUD,” says Albert.
“The Czech state has no official records of whom this happened to, because it has never recognised it as a problem.”
Sterilisation was part of a wider social narrative to “discriminate, seclude and eradicate” the Roma population. “The systematic racism within education, housing and the job market continues to affect the Romani population and there is little political will to implement change,” says Albert.
Efforts to tackle racism have been undermined by derogatory remarks from politicians, including the Czech public defender of rights, Stanislav Křeček, who said the Roma communityhad brought discrimination on itself.
But Gorolová and Albert are fighting on “until we get there”.
“Many women have given up and many have died due to medical complications. Their families deserve to be compensated and so do we,” says Gorolová. “What happened to us cannot be taken back, but the state needs to bring this era to an end.”