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September 28, 2022



When words fall on stony soil and hearts harden in the face of injustice: On coercive sterilisation and social theatre

16.6.2016 11:14
"Stories That (Never) Began", a performance in Ostrava, Czech Republic about and by Romani women who are survivors of forced sterilization, was given on 9 June 2016. (PHOTO: Barbora Černušáková)

In Czechoslovakia coercive sterilisation policies primarily targeted groups that were considered a threat to the public health of society. Romani women were among these targeted groups, and over a period of almost thirty years, hundreds of Romani women were either sterilised without their knowledge, or unduly pressured by doctors and social workers to ‘consent’ to sterilisation. It was a bitter and cruel historical twist that Czechoslovakia launched its eugenic program focused on limiting the reproductive capacities of its ‘problematic’ groups in the early 1970s, just when Sweden finally chose to abolish its coercive sterilisation policies. Sweden had the unsavoury distinction of being the first country to introduce eugenic laws in the 1930s, even before Nazi Germany or fascist Italy. Only in 1993 did Czech-Slovak authorities abolish such abusive state policies, but in the absence of any new comprehensive policy framework, the practice mushroomed and continued until early 2000.

Shortly after the Czech government rejected the adoption of a draft law mandating compensation for women who were coercively sterilised, the idea of producing social theatre surfaced for the first time. The government had been promising a compensation scheme since 2009, when Prime Minister Fischer, on behalf of the government, publicly acknowledged that forced sterilisations took place. That same year, the Government’s Human Rights Council in an official document recommended as a matter of urgency that the government compensate the harmed women. However as far back as 2005, the government got a clear signal that compensation is the right thing to do, when they had to acknowledge the findings of the Czech Ombudsman, which resolutely confirmed that many Romani women were coercively sterilised in Czechoslovakia. The involvement of the Ombudsman and the official apology by the Prime Minister did not occur in a social vacuum, but were rather responses to the extraordinary efforts of several Romani women from the Moravian-Silesian region, who had been coercively sterilised. After they submitted their cases to the Ombudsman, they decided to become activists, committed to breaking the spell of silence over these intimate atrocities committed against them. Ten years on, and six years after the government’s official admission concerning this abuse, the government added further insult to injury, and stunningly failed these courageous women by rejecting the compensation bill without any public explanation of their reasoning.

The women were deeply frustrated with the outcome of ten years of speaking with media, public officials, lawyers and civil society, participating in research projects, high-officials events, conferences and media briefings. The women briefly contemplated abandoning their asymmetric struggle with the windmills of the Czech governance. But, instead of giving up they decided to drop the words for a while and engage in a different medium of communication: social theatre or the theatre of oppressed.

It was highly unlikely that these women would give up their struggle. Over the years, in addition to their demands for financial compensation and an official apology, they have been active in awareness raising and campaigning for more robust legal safeguards. They remain committed to re-shaping public opinion and defending the rights of Romani women in health services and hospitals, so that no other women will ever have to endure the same abuses. As Tofteng and Husted remind us: “Theatre-based action research opens up a new way to communicate and make visible knowledge and experiences from below that have difficulties reaching the public agenda or influencing structures of power.”1

These women are driven by the ambition to reform the society in which they live, regardless of whether or not they will live long enough to see justice done and compensation awarded in their individual cases; for some of the women in the group have already passed away, while others are seriously ill. The significance and scope of their advocacy on coercive sterilisation has, over ten years, transcended the impact and gravity of their personal injuries.

The decision to rehearse social theatre has a significant personal dimension, as the women believe that addressing a wider public through theatre provides them with a therapeutic path for coping with the traumas they had to face, traumas for which often nobody was on hand to help them cope. The language of theatre can also convey the message to other Romani women who suffered coercive sterilisation or other abuses of their reproductive rights.

The Czech NGO, the League of Human Rights and the ERRC, which have worked on securing effective remedies for coercive sterilisation for the last 15 years, joined forced in order to support the women in dramatizing and acting their stories. An almost a week-long rehearsal under the supervision of two social theatre experts led to the official premiere of the play ‘Stories that have (never) begun’ in a Cooltour cultural centre in Ostrava on 9 June 2016.

Four Romani women harmed by coercive sterilisation – Soňa, Olga, Elena, and Nataša – transform their intimate stories of deprived dignity and family choice into a series of five scenes, which they act and comment during the play. They start with their childhood and teenage memories, which are then contrasted with recollections of their memories of the act of sterilisation. Each of the four women have a specific story to tell: Soňa was forced into sterilisation by a social worker who threatened to put her children in care and cut her welfare benefits. She was among the last women in the Roma neighbourhood in Krnov to sign up for sterilisation; all the other Romani women she knew had already undergone the surgery after being coerced by the social workers.

Olga was substantially misinformed by the social worker on the nature of sterilisation, she was made to believe that sterilization is a temporary procedure and that she could have children again in five years’ time.

Elena was sterilized during C-section delivery, which doctors justified on the grounds of sudden delivery complications. She had not been given any advice on sterilisation procedures and was asked to sign a form while she was in pain and bleeding heavily.

Right after she gave birth to her son, Nataša was forced to signed a blank paper which was used by medical personnel as consent to sterilisation. Although all four women remain equally determined to continue their struggle, they differ in their hopes and expectations that the government might change its position and that they will be accorded their long overdue respect and justice. The play ends with a symbolic scene with a finishing tape, where the distance each woman keeps from the tape reflects her degree of hope and expectation to see justice done.

The premiere was attended by some 100 people, Roma and non-Roma, and after the final scene tears were shed onstage and in the audience in a remarkable and moving moment of relief and emancipation. Despite years of adverse circumstances, when the power-holders have neglected or belittled their suffering, these women found the courage within themselves to tell their stories to the world and encourage other women to talk openly about abuses of their reproductive rights.

The play was recorded and soon it will be made available (with English subtitles) to broader audiences. There will also be video and radio documents on the theatre-making process capturing the reflections and thoughts of the women involved and their supporters. More importantly the performance in Ostrava will not be the last - encouraged by last week’s success, the women plan to take to the stage again to recount their stories to new audiences.

Marek Szilvasi
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