‘The money we get will not compensate for my infertility’

The Czech state has agreed to reparations for some victims of forced sterilisation, but does the move go far enough?

Radka Hancilova spent thousands of dollars on fertility treatment following her forced sterilisation in the early 1990s, a procedure that took place when she gave birth via caesarean section [Courtesy of Radka Hančilová]

Earlier this month, women who were involuntarily sterilised in the Czech state finally won their battle for compensation.

On August 3, President Miloš Zeman signed a bill into law that will see hundreds of victims each receive 300,000 Czech crowns ($13,890).

During communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia, women from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and many in the Roma community, were sterilised as part of a state policy, from the 1960s. That policy ended in the early 90s, but unofficially continued into the 2000s, activists have said.

The last known case was in 2010.

It is not known exactly how many women were affected. Some estimates say thousands, and among them, many have since died.

Radka Hancilova is one of the few non-Roma women who was sterilised against her will after the policy ended.

Aged 20, she was sterilised in 1994 when she gave birth via caesarean section. She only signed a consent form after the procedure, when she was still in pain and not aware of what she was signing.

She underwent several years of hormonal treatments and spent 200,000 Czech crowns ($9,120) on in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures.

“The money we get will not compensate for my infertility, but it is better than nothing,” Hancilova told Al Jazeera by phone.

Sterilisation is mostly irreversible; Hancilova eventually had a daughter through IVF.

“The reparations are nothing revolutionary, but they will compensate for my IVF procedure,” she said. “It can happen to anyone, the doctor who sterilised me knew he could get away with it, and he did.”

In the years that followed, she tried to contact the doctor, but got no response.

“He refused to talk to me. He probably knew that what he had done was illegal.”

Another victim, Sarka Grundzova, was sterilised in 1987 under the communist government’s official eugenic policy. Then, women who agreed to the procedure were offered financial and material incentives.

Others were manipulated into signing consent forms for sterilisation procedures, which were usually performed during childbirth.

“The doctors presented it as some form of advanced birth control,” said Grundzova. “But no one ever told me it would be permanent and that I could never have children again.”

She felt “betrayed, worthless and depressed” when she realised she could no longer have children.

“I started going through menopause when I was 35. I weighed 47 kilograms, my thyroid gland stopped working, and I started suffering from severe hormone imbalances,” she said.

But according to Helena Valkova, the Czech human rights commissioner, Grundzova is not entitled to compensation because she was sterilised on the Slovak side of former Czechoslovakia.

“Only those sterilised on Czech territory will be able to apply for compensation,” said Valkova.

Victims sterilised on the Slovak side are not covered by the bill and will have to wait and see whether Slovakia makes similar moves, she said.

Since the Czech Republic passed the law, the European Commission of Human Rights has urged the Slovak government to address the issue.

In an open letter to Zuzana Čaputová, the Slovak president, Grundzova wrote: “I think it is not fair. We used to be one Czechoslovak country. This is why I am asking you to help me.”

Jonathan Lee from the European Roma Rights Centre said reparations are a critical step of any reconciliation process.

“It is more than an apology; it is a validation of the pain and trauma that these people went through,” he said. “It’s not just about the money. The countries’ society must watch the state acknowledge its mistakes.”

However, as the measures only ensure compensation for women sterilised before 2012, Lee worries that women who do not fall into this category will continue to face problems.

“The burden of proof will be on them, and they will have to present large amounts of evidence, compared to those that fall under the compensation mechanism,” he said.

Still, Lee believes the Czech bill sends an important message to other countries yet to make amends for unlawfully sterilising women.

“This isn’t just a Czech problem; this is a eugenic problem,” he told Al Jazeera.

Other countries such as Sweden and Germany also adopted laws promoting coercive sterilisations in an attempt to decrease the Roma population.

Victims who can prove that they were sterilised without their informed consent between 1966 and 2012, on the Czech side, can apply for compensation from January, 2022.

“The committee delegated by the Czech Ministry of Health will have up to 60 days to evaluate each application,” Valkova said.

“The state had allocated 120,000 million Czech crowns ($9,257,000) to repay approximately 400 survivors of coercive sterilisation alive today,” said Valkova. “I am grateful to everyone who made this happen, and I hope we can now close this historical chapter.”

Source: Al Jazeera