Case Watch: Roma Sterilization Case Reaches European Court

In a new blog feature, “Case Watch,” staff of the Open Society Justice Initiative provide quick-hit analysis of recent notable court decisions that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.

V. C., a Slovakian national of Roma ethnic origin, was just 20 years old when she was sterilized, permanently depriving her of the opportunity to have more children. In the aftermath, the Roma community in Šarišská Poruba, the small Slovakian village where V.C. lives, has ostracized her. Her husband left her because of her infertility.

Sadly, V.C.’s story of sterilization is not an uncommon one among Roma women in Slovakia, which is why she took her case to the European Court of Human Rights.

V.C.’s story began in August 2000, when she was in hospital to deliver her second child. During the delivery, while she was scared and in pain in the late stages of labor, employees of the hospital told her that if she ever had more children, either she or the baby would die. V.C. asserts that she was not informed of any alternative methods, and was unsure of what sterilization actually meant at the time, yet signed the sterilization consent form anyway in fear.

She claims that her Roma ethnicity, a fact clearly stated in her medical record, played a vital role in her sterilization. She also claims that she suffered segregation in the hospital due to her ethnicity, being placed in the so called “Gypsy room” and prohibited from using the same bathrooms as non-Roma women.

Not surprisingly, the government contests V.C.’s allegations, claiming her sterilization was performed strictly for medical reasons rather than for discriminatory ones and that no segregation had occurred. An absence of official statistical data based on ethnicity in Slovakia has made it difficult for either side to prove their case. The government has tried to show, through indirect means, that the frequency of sterilization in the Roma population was actually significantly lower than among the rest of the population.

V.C. has presented a number of studies to refute these assertions and show a history of such discrimination against Roma women. Specifically, V.C. included one study that asserted that a staggering 60% of sterilizations carried out from 1986 to 1987 in the Prešov district, where V.C. was sterilized, had been on Roma women.

While the conflicting studies make it difficult to get a clear picture in this particular case, it should be viewed in context of the systematic discrimination that Roma suffer across Europe. While sterilization is a particularly stark example, they are repeatedly targeted by police, and the Open Society Justice Initiative has brought cases to illustrate the discrimination against them in education and housing, including D.H. and Others v. Czech Republic and Bagdonavichus v. Russia.

The ECHR Grand Chamber will hear this case on March 22. V.C. has claimed that the sterilization done without her full consent and based on her Roma ethnicity constituted violations of Articles 3 (prohibition of inhuman or degrading treatment), 8 (right to respect for private and family life), and 14 (prohibition of discrimination) of the European Convention of Human Rights.

It remains to be seen how the court will balance the interests of V.C. and the government, while taking into consideration the growing outcry for transparency in relation to the issue of forced sterilization. In addition, the court may address the issue in light of the systematic discrimination that members of the Roma community face in all aspects of life not only in Slovakia, but in Europe at large.

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I have sympathy for this woman, but I have to say that sterilization certainly is pushed on white women in America, and it is encouraged here as foolishly as it was in her case - when you are at or near labor. What kind of time is that for ANY woman to make a life-changing decision? It is irresponsible medicine, yet it happens all the time. The presumption far too often is that you have two children, so why on earth would you want more? They don't give mothers time to think, because they honestly think there is nothing to "think" about - it's a no-brainer, supposedly.

If ethnicity played a role, and if she was truly segragated at the hospital, that is an outrage - not just for her, but for the women who may have benefited by becoming acquainted with her in the hospital. The hospital denied potential friendships to women who can benefit from knowing women in and outside of their ethnic circle. Ridiculous.

But in terms of the sterilization, I don't think the problem is necessarily racism. It's based on a presumption that women don't or shouldn't want more than one or two children. no matter what ethnicity those children are. And as I said, it's bad, bad medicine to push such an important decision on a woman in labor. But it sure does happen, and it's wrong.

Rroma people have a long term forced relationship with sterilization that predates WWII. And sterilization was heavily practiced on our people during WWII. This issue is deeply connected to Rroma people and our experience of being discriminated against. My cousin could not get her tubes tied (sterilization) even though she wanted to (after having 2 kids). She was prevented from voluntary sterilization because the doctors said she was not old enough. In fact, the U.S. state she lives in would not allow her to get her tubes tied beccause she was not old enough. In her state you have to be 21 to get voluntary sterilization.

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