Truth to power
For the past four years, I have been involved in helping the survivors of coercive sterilization in the Czech Republic in their struggle to win government redress for the harms they suffered, and prevent such violations from ever occurring in Czech hospitals again. Together with local and international NGOs, women from the Roma community in Ostrava in particular have persevered in this quest, despite minimal resources and support. Their one ally is the Czech public defender of rights (the ombudsman), whose recommendations made in 2005 remain unimplemented by the government, despite calls by the government's own advisory bodies to acknowledge responsibility for the violations, apologize to the victims and provide compensation.
A few weeks ago, I found myself in a hotel in Vienna after a week of activism at a large women's rights conference in Madrid. Together with some of the Ostrava survivors and staff of the European Roma Rights Centre, I had been collecting signatures on postcards calling for the Czech, Hungarian and Slovak governments to redress these violations. Curious to see the news, I turned on CNN — and almost fell over with surprise. A promo spot announced that the documentary Trial of a Child Denied, about the coercive sterilizations in the Czech Republic, would be airing as part of the network's "World's Untold Stories" series. Having been closely involved in assisting the producers of this film, I was overjoyed to see their work reaching the world. (SEE VIDEO... Child denied)
But, for me, the most important development of the past four years has been the changes I've observed in the women themselves. Despite some rough patches — such as hostile reporting in the local press after they demonstrated outside an Ostrava hospital in 2006 — these women have overcome the stigma that anyone would feel discussing such intimate details of their lives. At a recent meeting with Roma women from Slovakia who were subjected to the same abuses, the coercive sterilization survivors from Ostrava spoke passionately about the need to somehow reach the public through the media, not just to exchange their experiences privately. Even after four years of near-silence from the government, and even though they are aware that the vast majority of them will never see their day in court, they remain fired up and eager for justice.
No one personifies this transformation quite so clearly as Elena Gorolova, who was sterilized without her informed consent in 1990, during the course of her second Caesarian section delivery. While she was in the throes of labor in the birthing room, in enormous pain and under the influence of sedatives, doctors gave her a piece of paper and told her, "Sign this or you will die." Trusting them, she signed without even reading the document — as she later said, "At that moment, I would have signed my own death warrant."
The "consent" obtained from Elena under these circumstances is typical of the post-communist complaints registered with the ombudsman. She did not choose to be sterilized — the doctors chose for her.
Four years ago, when I first reported on these violations with Elena at the United Nations in New York City, it was her first-ever airplane trip. So we arranged for another woman offering testimony to accompany her, and show her the ropes of plane travel. This summer, for our trip to Madrid, Elena not only flew from Ostrava on her own, but was the one offering support to another first-time flier. She's also learned to use the Internet, e-mail and Skype. The experiences of speaking in public and interacting with journalists have strengthened not only Elena's self-confidence but that of her fellow survivors, as the Trial documentary so beautifully depicts. Elena has also recently been appointed a civil society member of the Government Council for Roma Community Affairs, an advisory body to the Czech government on Roma issues.
Only a truly strong individual could have withstood the recent experience of an online interview with readers of the Czech news server iDNES.cz, which Elena agreed to do while we were in Madrid. The chat participants, some signing themselves as "Doctor," accused Elena and her fellow victims of various underhanded motives, primarily a desire to "get rich quick" — a laughable charge to anyone familiar with the delays of the Czech legal system, and the traditionally low amounts of compensation awarded even in exceptional cases.
The questioners seemed to have a hard time grasping that the throes of labor are not the right time to ask a woman whether she wants to be sterilized. They tried to explain to Elena that the "real problem" was her husband's desire to have more children, not the doctor's sterilizing her without her informed consent. They implied that having children was just a ploy for receiving social support. They asked whether she smokes, what grades she got in grammar school and why she doesn't just adopt. They asked her why the Roma abuse welfare, why they throw it away on gambling, drugs and alcohol — racist questions that have nothing to do with human rights abuses.
As was her prerogative, she did not respond to the more ignorant questions. She answered the ones she thought worthwhile, repeating her intensely personal story for what must be the 1,000th time in an effort to make people realize what not only she, but many others, have been through. I find her stamina simply incredible.
The Czech government will take over the EU presidency in the first half of 2009, followed by Sweden. Ten years ago, that country decided to do what the Czech Republic has not yet done: acknowledge that the sterilization program it ran from the early 1930s through the 1970s led to human rights abuses, and compensate the victims of this practice. As far as I know, the recognition of this truth has not cost the Swedish government anything in terms of international prestige — indeed, it has raised the country's standing among advocates for human rights and justice.
Thanks to the efforts of everyone who has worked on the issue of coercive sterilization in this country since the late 1970s, the Czech government now has a tremendous opportunity to join the ranks of those countries capable of such self-reflection and atonement. The question is whether Czech leaders are compassionate enough to do so.
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