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28th Feb 2024

Feature

The voices of EU's forcibly-sterilised disabled women

  • Even today, forced sterilisation of women is legal in nearly half of the EU-27 member states (Photo: Unsplash)
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"I'll never have kids," Gaelle (now 45 years old), a woman with an intellectual disability, confessed just one day after she was forcedly sterilised in a Belgian hospital over twenty years ago.

"I was operated on yesterday, my parents forced me to," her 24-year-old self sobbed to a member of the organisation 'Mouvement personne d'abord', who left an awareness talk on sexual relations and children after Gaelle to ask her what was wrong.

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When found outside the building, she was crying, but managed to explain that her mother and gynaecologist had decided to operate on her — although the issue is more complicated than that, as disabled people can be under guardianship [meaning that the person legally appointed can make decisions for them].

Now Gaelle rarely speaks to her mother and confesses to EUobserver that she would have liked to be a parent.

Her mother, on the other hand, told the Belgian association just a few weeks ago that she was lucky to have had the operation, saying something similar to this: "Imagine what we would have done with a child today".

Decisions like this are often disguised under the pretext of 'it's for your own good', as was also the case with Veronique.

Veronique was only 20 when her parents took her to hospital under false pretences. When she woke up, the irreversible procedure of tubal ligation had already been performed.

"How are you going to raise a kid when you are not even able to take care of yourself?", her mother used to tell her — long before the procedure erased the chance to figure it out by herself.

At that young age, she felt a certain maternal instinct, but she was unsure if she really wanted to be a mother.

A few years after this episode, Veronique found love and got married. The couple spent about 20 years together, and the fact that she could not have children was a recurring source of conflict. He always reproached her for this and, together with other reasons, they finally filed for divorce.

Almost 30 years later, Veronique still thinks about how that decision was made for her, she now admits.

Both procedures took place in Belgium, and in some European countries such operations have not yet been buried in the past.

Even today, forced sterilisation of women with disabilities is legal in several EU countries.

Nearly half of the EU-27 authorise forced sterilisation in some cases, including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovakia, and Malta — although the Maltese government has proposed a bill to prohibit it in all circumstances.

Status of forced sterilisation in the EU (Photo: European Disability Forum)

Only a third of those states explicitly criminalise it as a separate offence in their penal codes — and to different degrees.

In Sweden, for example, it is punishable by a fine and up to six months imprisonment, while in Malta it is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment.

Now, as the EU is working on legislation to combat violence against women, the European Parliament is trying to include a ban on this practice "with no exception based on disability or legal capacity", according to the amended text.

The EU executive did not include such a ban in the first place, and member states may do the same, as the Council's legal service has also raised concerns about including it in the directive, which is still blocked in the Council over the inclusion of rape in the final text.

If agreed, it would ensure that disabled women's rights are respected equally across the Union, says the European Disability Forum (EDF), an umbrella organisation of people with disabilities, representing over 100 million citizens.

"If the EU misses this chance, they are failing women with disabilities," Pirkko Mahlamäki, EDF chair of the women's committee told EUobserver.

Scale of problem still unclear

"We need data to fully understand how many women and girls with disabilities were sterilised in Europe, the extent of the problem, and more importantly, how can we stop it from happening," Sara Rocha, vice-chair of EDF women's committee stressed.

There are no official figures on how many cases have occurred in the EU that could lead to an investigation of those behind such practices.

In Spain, for example, over 1,000 cases were registered from 2006 to 2016. Forced sterilisation was legal in the southern European country until 2020.

But overall, the dimension of the problem is completely unknown.

"Women who were sterilised may not know they were, since consent can be given by a legal guardian, and they are often pressured or tricked into the procedure, such as when it is performed under the guise of an appendicitis surgery," Rocha explained.

This happened to Natascha, then aged 24, who was asked if she objected to the procedure once she had been put under anesthetic.

"I did not know what to say, I was too young," she told EUobserver.

Her mother decided for her out of the fear that Natascha would raise any children having an intellectual disability.

It took 12 years for Natascha to realise what had happened — and there was no turning back for her.

She is not alone. In Belgium, France and Hungary, a woman could be required to use contraception or be sterilised in order to be admitted to a residential facility — although the issue is not well documented and such a requirement is not officially possible.

Today, similar requirements may still exist in EU countries. For example, NGOs in Poland reported that disabled women living in institutions were sterilised without their consent (or informed consent).

An EDF analysis in 2022 also highlighted that forced sterilisation of minors is still allowed in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Portugal. And only five member states explicitly criminalise it, including France, Germany, Austria and Malta.

"Disabled women have the same feelings and needs as an ordinary woman," Danielle Tychon, coordinator at Mouvement Person d'Abord, said.

"What gives us the right to decide for them?" she asked.

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