The Slovakian government has formally apologised to the thousands of Roma women who were coercively sterilised over several decades, condemning the years of mistreatment of the Roma people.
Dunja Mijatovic, The human rights commissioner for the Council of Europe, welcomed the "apology to victims of forced sterilisation” but emphasised the need for further progress.
Mijatovic wrote to Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger in July, calling on him to “take action to address the situation of victims of forced or coercive sterilisations in the Slovak Republic”. Pointing out that “despite long-standing calls to address their situation, including ensuring access to compensation, remedies for these human rights violations remain elusive for many victims”.
I welcome the news of Slovak Government’s apology to victims of forced sterilisation as a first important step. I now look forward to quick progress on an accessible & effective compensation mechanism.— Commissioner for Human Rights (@CommissionerHR) November 24, 2021
Read my earlier letter on why justice cannot wait 👇https://t.co/nvxiEfz1ki
She acknowledges that while “neither apologies nor reparations can undo the harm inflicted on victims, both physically and mentally”, that these steps still provide a measure of justice for victims. She argues for a "mechanism to ensure prompt and effective access to reparations for victims of forced or coercive sterilisation”.
“I urge you to make concrete commitments to follow up on the recommendations already made to your government, including by the Public Defender of Rights, and to create effective forms of redress for these long-standing human rights violations. This would provide an important opportunity to turn the page on this dark chapter, both for the state and the victims. In this respect, I encourage you to work closely with the victims and civil society organisations supporting victims, national human rights bodies, and other experts in finding the best modalities for moving forward swiftly on this important matter.”
Minister of Justice of the Slovak Republic, Mária Kolíková’s reply to Commissioner Mijatovic assured her that “the Ministry of Justice and the Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic take the issue of sterilisations performed without informed consent very seriously” and that they are “currently discussing options … on how to examine claims of sterilisation without informed consent prior to 2004 and how to provide reparations.”
Roma women were subjected to the state-sanctioned and funded eugenics program during the communist era in former Czechoslovakia. The practice began in 1966 and although it was officially abolished in 1993 after 27 years, it continued throughout the 1990s and 2000s, with the last known case taking place in Slovakia in 2004 and in the Czech Republic in 2007. During this period, Slovakia and the Czech Republic sterilised around 90,000 Romani women against their will, with generations of Slovakian Roma women being subjected to this barbaric practice.
Historically, involuntary sterilisation has been used as a eugenical means of achieving genetic purity and to control population levels. Those targeted by sterilisation are predominantly women in poverty, with the Roma being targeted for their high birth rate and racially prejudicial reasons. Several UN agencies have condemned the practice as being “in contravention of fundamental human rights principles of autonomy and dignity”, and as also falling under the UN's definition of genocide.
Slovakia has lagged behind the Czech Republic, both in acknowledging their past maltreatment of Roma women, as well as taking concrete steps to make amendments. The Czech government apologised to the victims of sterilisations in 2009, more than a decade before Slovakia. And earlier this year – ahead of Slovakia – The Czech Senate “voted to compensate thousands of Roma women who were unlawfully sterilised”.
Some of the Roma women who underwent forced sterilisation were told to sign papers they didn’t comprehend when in pain or distress during labour or delivery, some had the procedure performed while they were receiving other forms of surgery, such as caesarean sections, without even knowing it took place; while others only agreed to undergo the procedure “after threats to institutionalise their children or withdraw welfare benefits”.
One such illegally sterilised Slovak Roma woman is Rozalia, who was taken to hospital to deliver her second child. She was told she would have to have a Caesarian.
Rozalia had no idea that the doctor had sterilised her during the Caesarean and only found out years later when her medical records were obtained on her behalf by Barbora Bukovska – a Czech Republic lawyer for the Centre for Civil and Human Rights who was writing a report on the illegal sterilisations of Roma women in Czechoslovakia.
Rozalia’s file said that she had consented to being sterilised and had a signature that purports to be hers. She denies ever requesting sterilisation or signing a document, telling Barbora “I didn't sign anything. They just asked me about the name I was going to give. There was nothing else”. Sadly, Rozalia and her husband had always wanted more children and had never understood why they were unable to have more until the awful truth was revealed.
The horrific abuse of Roma women, who remain a vulnerable racial minority in Slovakia, is a stain on the nation's history. The generations of Slovak Roma women who have been robbed of their dignity and their right to be mothers deserve more than an apology, they deserve reparations for the state-sanctioned abuse perpetrated against them. Nothing can return to these women what was stolen from them and while reparations won’t change what happened, perhaps it will allow these women to begin to heal.