Forced Sterilisation of Roma Women in Slovakia

Discrimination or anti-romani sentiment against the Roma people is a serious problem and human rights issue in many countries including Slovakia. This phenomenon is very often based on stereotypes revolving around criminality, laziness, and receiving undeserved benefits from the state.

In the 2009 survey conducted by EU-MIDIS across several European countries, including Slovakia, which was the focus of this analysis, alarming findings emerged regarding discrimination against the Roma community. The survey, the first of its kind in the EU, interviewed predominantly random samples of immigrant and ethnic minority groups using a standardized questionnaire.

Roma people have been in Slovakia for more than 700 years, the first written mention of Roma in Slovakia is from 1322, and already at that time they were condemned for colour of their skin. Maria Theresa and Joseph II. tried in 1761 for the assimilation of the Roma, but this did not succeed. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Roma made a living from crafts and small production, musical activities, or peddling, but they were segregated away from the villages. Roma were also victims of the Holocaust, when approximately 1000 Roma from Slovakia died during the war and others were taken to concentration or labor camps.

According to the 2021 population census, their number in Slovakia is now 100 526, which is approximately 1,8 percent of the entire population in Slovakia.

Roma in Slovakia face discrimination in various aspects of life. According to a 2009 EU-MIDIC survey:

1. 41% of Roma experienced discrimination:

   – 23% when seeking or being in employment.

   – 10% when searching for housing.

   – 17% by healthcare personnel.

   – 15% by social service personnel.

   – 6% by school staff.

   – 24% when accessing financial services.

Roma people often face marginalization due to factors such as limited access to education and negative stereotypes, such as being seen as lazy or unreliable. UNDP research in 2004-2005 found that three-quarters of Roma households rely on social benefits.

Slovakia has the highest rate of Roma segregation in education within the EU, with 65% of Roma students aged 6-15 attending separate schools for Roma children. In 2015, the European Commission initiated proceedings against Slovakia for violating EU directives on discrimination in education, and in 2023, Slovakia was referred to the European Court of Justice.

Another significant form of discrimination experienced by the Roma community is the forced sterilization of women. Between 1986-2004 thousands of Roma women were forcibly sterilized in Slovakia which violated their sexual and reproductive rights because for the government they were culturally substandard. Also, during the late 1960s, the communist authorities of Czechoslovakia became increasingly concerned about declining population rates. They believed the birth rate among the Czechoslovak Roma population was alarmingly high when compared to the general population. In 1969, the Czech and Slovak Socialist Republics became legislatively independent, meaning they introduced their own laws. They allowed local authorities and hospitals to sterilize Roma women and patients with disabilities.

Research published in 2008 by Vera Sokolova, a Czech academic who specializes in gender studies stated that Roma women accounted for 36% of all sterilizations carried out between 1972 and the 1900s, yet the Roma population has never constituted more than 2% of the entire population. 

In 1984, following the delivery of Jana’s second child at the hospital, medical personnel gave her documents for her to sign but she declined to sign them. Doctors administered an injection to alleviate her pain and induced her into a state of unconsciousness. Subsequently, she discovered that her ovaries had been surgically manipulated to prevent her from having any more children. 

The same story happened to Veronika 26 years later, in 2000. Another Romani woman Stela shared a distressing account: “The doctor warned me that a third caesarean would be fatal. The medical staff emphasized this to me repeatedly, stressing my youth and desire for more children. Despite immense pain, fear drove me to agree as I had a son at home, my husband worked, and my mother was unwell. I reluctantly accepted, contemplating the possibility of a third child. However, the reality of my mortality hit me, and tears flowed as I pondered leaving behind my son and newborn daughter.”

Furthermore, Roma women endure adverse conditions in hospitals. In 2002, Ďurkovič, a member of the People Against Racism initiative in Slovakia, stated: “I am certain that Roma women face physical abuse and psychological torment in healthcare facilities. They lack information and suffer from segregation. My conviction stems from personal experience during my tenure in gynecology.”

In 2021, the Slovak government issued an apology to Roma women.

Photos credits: Getty Images/iStockphoto, Zeugma Museum, Caroline Hernandez