The objective: helping poor families with too many mouths to feed. The solution: avoid procreation giving women free contraceptives or offering them sterilization on the house. The Ministry of Labour of Slovakia is working on a draft law on endangered groups facing social exclusion that recalls sinister ghosts from the past. Some local media denounce that on the pretext of helping the poor, the programme actually targets the large and ill-tolerated Roma community. Nothing better than birth control would hint that something is being done about the problem. “It’s another step towards populism”, put forward Slovak pro-Roma activists.
At first glance, the proposal might seem reasonable: to map the poorest communities – around 700, with 200.000 people – in order to provide them support. “Officially, the proposal focuses on disadvantaged persons living in communities facing social exclusion. But if you look closely at the criteria, it is apparent that the programme targets primarily the Roma”, explains sociologist Elena Kriglerova Gallova. A lawyer specialized in discrimination, Laco Oravec, is less critical: “All poor women must have access to medical assistance and should have the possibility to decide how many children they want to have. Limited access to quality health care is one of the forms of social exclusion. There is agreement on the proposal that the State should provide low-income women with contraceptives or sterilization for free, or at limited costs. On the other hand, this might work only if supported by adequate information on reproductive rights, with no pressure on women, and informed consent at every step. It might be a progressive measure for the Roma community and for women in general».
Still, the matter of contention remains sterilization. It is voluntary in the proposal, but Slovakia accounts for enforced sterilization of Roma women under the socialist regime and more recently, with the last cases dating 2007. “I have no problems with free contraceptives, which are extremely expensive in Slovakia. But sterilization conveys communities a symbolic message: we don’t want you to have babies. Contraception is temporary, but sterilization is permanent”, says Ms. Gallova. Permanent and bloodcurdling, especially if addressing one only ethnic group.
“We would be extremely worried if there was any form of coercion. The Government should proceed carefully, bearing in mind the legacy of enforced sterilization in Czechoslovakia and Slovakia. And the fact that it hadn’t admitted its responsibilities in sterilizing Roma women against their will, nor it has apologized, or paid any damages», says Robert Kushen, executive director of the European Roma Rights Centre, one of the most active and prominent NGOs advocating for Roma rights. A number of proceedings in which the Government of Bratislava is deemed responsible for the coercive sterilization of Roma women after the fall of the socialist regime are still open at the European Court of Justice. “Before even starting to think of a new programme that would include birth control and sterilization, the Government should deal with with the issue, apologize and consider indemnification for victims”, emphasizes Kushen.
Is the idea of sterilization underpinned by political reasons? “Hard to say. The Secretary of State for Roma Affairs, Lucia Nicholsonova, is committed to finding good solutions for the social inclusion of the Roma. I don’t know if there have been changes of political direction. Obviously, the Roma population in the region grows at a faster pace if compared to other groups. However, birth control and sterilization are not viable solutions, while providing education, medical assistance, housing and employment opportunities might be”. As for now, Slovakia remains unfriendly to Roma people, and unwilling to give them a chance. People are “very hostile towards the Roma, and the Government doesn’t demonstrate significant political will to fight social exclusion, that is only getting worse” wraps up Kushen.
Meanwhile, fearing international scandal, the Slovak Government might be prompted to back-track. “The leading coalition is now divided on the issue. The Christian-Democrats are against the proposal, while the Liberals back it”, explains Jan Krempasky, journalist of Sme and one of the first to expose the ins and outs of the proposal. “I spoke with the Minister of Labour that confirmed that the Liberals are having a rethink and are ready to withdraw the proposal”, reveals Krempasky. Perhaps, they realized that there are other, much more enlightened ways, to handle “Roma Affairs”.
Italy is also in the sights
Italy cannot boast a record of tolerance and respect for the rights of Roma people. According to the European Roma Rights Centre, between March and May 2011, more that 150 coercive evacuations have been carried out in Rome. The victims: 1800 Roma, including hundreds of minors. “These evacuations breach international laws and standards that Italy should comply with” states a press release issued jointly by EERC and the Italian group “21 Luglio”. “The municipal authorities of the capital did not anticipate information about the evacuations, and did not provide alternative accommodation, while the lodgings and personal belongings of the Roma have been arbitrarily destroyed”.