Thousands of women who were forcibly sterilised will finally be compensated following years of campaigning by victims and advocates.
Up to 400 women, most of whom are Roma, could now be eligible for payments of up to 300,000 Czech crowns (around £10,000), paid for by the Czech Ministry of Health.
Earlier this year VICE World News spoke to victims of unlawful sterilisation who had little hope that they would ever be compensated for being sterilised against their will, under semi-official eugenic policies aimed at curbing the Roma population in what was then the Soviet satellite state of Czechoslovakia.
These state policies offered various material benefits to women who would undergo sterilisation during Communist rule. Sterilisation incentives were officially banned in 1991, but women like Simona Milenkova are living proof of the practice continuing into the 2000s: Milenkova was just 25 when in 2010 doctors informed her she would not be able to have children because they had tied her fallopian tubes.
“I welcome this news, but it won’t mend the pain that doctors inflicted on my family,” Milenkova said in a phone interview after the compensation bill was signed into law this week.
She plans to take her daughters on holiday and save the rest for their future education. “Maybe it could help them have a better life than I did,” she said.
Piroska Sulikova was sterilised in 1983 without her consent and without even being informed. She was 18. It took her three years before she even found out what had happened to her.
“Money is nice, but what is life without children? You love them and they love you back. Life makes no sense without them,” she told VICE World News in a video call. She plans to use some of the money for living costs, “but most of it will go to my grandchildren,” she said.
Kumar Vishwanathan, a key campaigner for reparations from Ostrava, northeast Czech Republic, said that the compensation law followed a decades-long fight.
“The past regime acted like a puppet master managing its slave citizens. This had catastrophic consequences for women, especially Roma women,” said Vishwanathan.
As far back as 2001, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) revealed that practices of unlawful sterilisation continued after 1989, following the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia.
“But no one took this seriously, I was among Roma rights activists who started analysing the facts,” Vishwanathan said.
“I was shocked when I realised that many of the women who were coercively sterilised were my friends and neighbours. No one had ever said a word about this to me,” said Vishwanathan.
He decided to call a meeting with 12 of the victims. There he carefully opened up the topic of sterilisation. “I remember the silence when I told them that I know their stories.” But after a couple of minutes, one of the women opened up. “She told the group that her husband kicked her in the abdomen after finding out she could no longer have children and that she had been alone, not able to speak of this since,” recalled Vishwanathan.
Others followed with stories of what had happened to them. “Many felt a sense of guilt and struggled to find words for what had happened to them.”
He believes that the collective relief of sharing personal stories of trauma with others brought these women together.
This group of women stayed together for nearly two decades, campaigning for reparations. “Some left us, while new members joined, but the core ideals of mutual support and solidarity stayed,” said Vishwanathan.
He described that there were long periods of time with endless meetings and little progress.
But slowly, the group professionalised, grew stronger, and managed to garner political support.
The Czech government apologised to the victims in 2009, but it took another ten years before lawmakers drafted a bill outlining compensation for the victims.
“What these women managed to achieve is an incredible lesson about turning trauma into justice, and I hope it will open up further discussions about other human rights infringements,” said Vishwanathan.
Despite this victory, He believes that Czech society has a long way to go to see women treated with more respect.
“I hope this will be a catalyst for the Czech society to address questions about oppressive patriarchal structures and women’s rights in the future,” he said.