‘An Attempt at Genocide’: Roma Women Still Being Unlawfully Sterilised

A joint investigation by VICE World News and Denik N shows that Roma women in the Czech Republic continued to be coercively sterilised years beyond what was supposed to be the final officially recognised case.
March 8, 2021, 4:12pm
‘An Attempt at Genocide’: Roma Women Are Still Being Forcibly Sterilised
Simona Milenkova and her late husband, pictured with their three daughters in 2015. Photo: Supplied

The moment that Simona Milenkova learned she would never have children again is seared into her mind.

Aged 25, she had just given birth to her third daughter via caesarean section when a doctor informed her that she had been sterilised.

“He told me the surgery went well and that my tubes were tied,” Milenkova said. At first she did not understand what the procedure meant, until her mother explained to her she would never have children again. Milenkova says that at this point her whole world “fell apart,” and led to the collapse of her marriage.

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Milenkova is a Czech woman of Roma descent, and a victim of unlawful coercive sterilisation. She is one of thousands of women sterilised under an unofficial policy that began under Communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia to curb the country’s Roma population. 

Most forced sterilisations were carried out in the 1970s and 1980s, until the practice was officially banned in the early 1990s. However, activists have said the practice continued into the 2000s, and after the last known case in 2007, the Czech government at the time finally expressed regret for the policy in 2009, although it stopped short of offering compensation.

But Milenkova, now 35, is living proof of the tragic fact that the forced sterilisation of Roma women did not stop in 2007. She was sterilised in 2010, three years after the last officially recognised case. Her testimony is corroborated by medical records seen by VICE World News and Czech newspaper Denik N during a joint investigation into the issue of forced sterilisation. The disclosure is hugely significant, and comes just days before the Czech parliament is due to debate a law that would finally compensate victims of forced sterilisation with a one-off payment of around £10,200 each.

“My world fell apart; I didn’t have the courage to go back to the hospital and demand answers.”

Under the current terms of the proposed legislation, only women forced to undergo sterilisation prior to 2012 – the year the relevant law last changed – can claim reparations. VICE World News and Denik N have spoken to a Roma woman who says she was forcibly sterilised as recently as 2018, but we have been unable to verify her testimony as her doctor claimed to not have her medical records on file. She is unable to visit the hospital’s medical archives to access her medical documentation due to a strict COVID lockdown currently in place in the Czech Republic.

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For women like Milenkova, the bill offers a chance to finally put the past behind them, and much-needed security. 

“If we got this money, my children would have a sense of safety, it would enable us to have some peace of mind instead of constant psychological distress,” she said in a phone interview.

Successive Czech governments have been condemned by the UN and human rights groups for allowing these procedures to take place and failing to compensate victims. Last year, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights wrote an open letter asking the government to address what she called a historic injustice.

“Paying out compensation needs to be the priority, not only for the victims of unlawful sterilisation but also for Czech society, which needs to see the process of installing justice in order to understand its scale," Barbora Cernusakova from Amnesty International said.

"The parliament has not given this priority in the past. This sends a signal that it’s not an important issue which is unacceptable not only for the magnitude of human rights infringements that happened in the past but also for future's sake, to ensure there is no repetition.”

Huge obstacles remain, however, including a pervading anti-Roma sentiment that persists in the Czech Republic. When Milenkova obtained a copy of her medical records, a healthcare worker told her to “not get your hopes up about reparations, because they will not pass the bill.”

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In October 2010, Milenkova arrived at the hospital in Žatec, a town of 19,000 in the north-west of the Czech Republic where she still lives with her three daughters, now aged 19, 15, and 10.

There for a scheduled c-section, she was taken to the doctor’s officer where she was given numbing medication and papers to sign.

“The doctors told me I also need to sign a paper consenting to tubal ligation,” Milenkova said in a series of interviews over the phone referring to a form of permanent birth control during which the fallopian tubes are cut, tied, or blocked, in order to prevent further pregnancy. “They explained that it is for my own safety, because I could die if I had to have another c-section," she remembers.

This was actually not the first time she says she has been asked to sign sterilisation documents. “Already after my second c-section, the doctors told me to sign these papers. But there was a nurse at the hospital who happened to know my grandmother and she advised me against it.”

“We really don’t have the time to comment on such matters.”

Milenkova was told the consequences of signing under her sterilisation only after she had woken up from the procedure. “My world fell apart; I didn’t have the courage to go back to the hospital and demand answers. My mother tried to speak to the doctors but without any luck," said Milenkova, who still doesn’t know to this day why doctors sterilised her.

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Milenkova remembers that her husband went “absolutely berserk” when he found out what had happened. “He was so angry the hospital security came in and led him out.”

The sterilisation marked the end of their marriage. “We were so happy but always wanted to have a son,” she said. “We started arguing after this and things got bad. Then he left me.”

Her ex-husband died in November 2020 after overdosing on sleeping pills. “We would have been celebrating his birthday on the 7th of March had he not passed away,” said Milenkova, who is currently receiving social benefits while taking care of her three daughters.

Milenkova’s medical records, which she gave VICE World News and Denik N permission to view, show that she was sterilised on the same day her daughter was born in October 2010. Milenkova says she was informed about the procedure just hours before the surgery. Informing Milenkova in this way would be a clear violation of a law on sterilisation that says patients need to provide informed consent, followed by a period of seven days to weigh the consequences of such a decision.

VICE World News and Denik N contacted the Czech Ministry of Health with a request for comment on whether unlawful sterilisation was still taking place, but received no response at time of publication. 

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Reached for comment over the phone, Alena Dernerová, a Czech Senator and member of the Žatec hospital’s managing board, said: “Currently, this is completely out of question. There is no longer a maternity ward, this is a matter of the past. During state-communism, sterilisations were performed after c-sections, but now, I just can't imagine doing so against a woman's will. I've been on the board for a year, so I cannot comment, but I do not know of any case where this happened.”

When contacted by VICE World News and Denik N, the general director of  the Žatec hospital, Jindřich Zetek, declined to comment. “We really don’t have the time to comment on such matters,” he wrote in an email.

Milenkova’s story mirrors testimonies from women sterilised in the 70s and 80s during the Soviet era. One of those is Piroška Šulíková. 

Šulíková gave birth for the second time in 1983 when she was just 18 years old. She was told that a c-section was necessary to save her and the child's life. “The doctors didn’t give me any choice; I was so young I didn’t even think about it," she remembers.

Piroška Šulíková. Photo: Supplied

Piroška Šulíková. Photo: Supplied

Six weeks after giving birth, she decided to get a coil to temporarily prevent further pregnancies. “I knew I wanted more children, but me and my late husband wanted to wait at least three years before bringing more children to this world."

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In 1986, she decided she wanted to conceive again, so she went to the hospital to have her coil removed. Her ob-gyn had left the city, so she had to find a new doctor. “He was shocked I had the coil in the first place, because apparently I couldn’t even have children," she remembered, “I didn’t understand this until he explained what sterilisation meant."

“At that moment, it felt like the world had collapsed beneath my feet. I felt worthless and betrayed," said Šulíková, “I didn’t have to have the coil because there was no chance of me ever having children again.”

She told her closest family, but many of her friends didn’t know until recently. “There was this shame around it, I felt worthless, like I had lost my worth.  Even my own husband didn’t take [it] well, the sterilisation defined the rest of our marriage," she said.

“The doctors didn’t give me any choice; I was so young I didn’t even think about it.”

Nowadays, Šulíková is a proud grandmother of eight. “Every life is so precious and I am glad my children had the opportunity I never had – to have a big family.”

Šulíková was sterilised at a time when involuntary, coerced, and forced sterilisations were part of state policy of the Communist Czechoslovakia. 

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Gwendolyn Albert, a human rights activist and translator for Romani News Server Romea.cz, believes the sterilisation efforts stemmed from the narrative that social inequalities had been eliminated by socialism and that the Czechoslovak population had prospered from homogeneity.

“Roma people represented deviations from the majority and many saw them as socially pathological. This resulted in a strong eugenically motivated push to sterilise Romani women. It was essentially an attempt at genocide,” she said.

In light of this, it was common practice for Roma women to be offered financial incentives  in the form of various coupons and funds for newly-wedded couples. When the financial inducements failed, social workers would threaten women by telling them their children would be taken away unless they underwent sterilisation.  

“All of this was disproportionately offered to Romani women,” Albert said. It was common practice for doctors to perform tubal ligation without informing women ahead of time or informing them at all.

“Many were misled to think that sterilisation was reversible; they did not understand that they were signing off on their ability to conceive. Sterilisation was often explained as a different form of birth control,” Albert said.

“We will never know what motivated doctors to do this – whether it was individual doctor’s perception of Romani women, or their feeling of entitlement to prevent women from conceiving further because of their health assessments.”

The common thread between all the cases, Albert added, is the underlying lie that the sterilisations were life-saving interventions.

“Now, the state needs to take responsibility for allowing, sponsoring, and licensing hospitals that enable these human right infringements to take place.”