Post Date: January 13, 2005

The following profile is from the January 2005 issue of Harvard Law Today.

By Margie Kelley

The nurse demanded to know what Barbora Bukovska was doing in the hospital ward asking questions. Bukovska said she was a human rights lawyer and that she wanted to speak to the doctor in charge of the ward at this Eastern Slovakian hospital. But she never got a chance to talk.

A doctor grabbed her from behind, pushed her to the floor and started beating her. “He dragged me out in the hall,” recalled Bukovska of the March 2001 attack. She had visited the hospital to follow up on reports of extreme mistreatment of minority Romani women. “It was like a horror movie. I was screaming for help, and another doctor came and tried to give me an injection. But then the police came and arrested me.” Later, when police finally questioned Bukovska about her business at the hospital, she discovered why she had been beaten. “They said, ‘This is what you get when you make a fuss about sterilizations.’ I was shocked.” When she explained that she’d been at the hospital only to investigate reports of segregation and poor care of Romani women, the police let her go.

“They said that segregation wasn’t a problem, and that if they had known that was what I was doing, they wouldn’t even have bothered coming,” she said. The authorities might well wish they’d held on to Bukovska, now an LL.M. student at HLS. The encounter set her on a new path of inquiry, and eventually led her to believe that a Communist-era program of forced sterilization of Romani women—performed when the women are in the hospital giving birth—had never been officially stopped. “When I went back to talk to these women, they said, ‘Oh yes, I was sterilized, and my sister was, and my cousin,’” said Bukovska. “They knew about it, but they couldn’t do anything about it.”

As the largest ethnic minority group in Slovakia, the Romani population has suffered marginalization and even, during World War II, attempts at extermination. Viewed by many white Slovaks as “gypsies,” the majority of Roma live in shantytowns on the outskirts of villages, often without basic utilities, access to education or health care. “In Slovakia, Roma have always been segregated. They live in shacks made from wood or mud, with no electricity and no water,” said Bukovska, who was born and raised in what is now Slovakia. She was living and studying in Prague when the end of Communism split Czechoslovakia in two.

Bukovska first witnessed discrimination against Roma while in school in Prague in the early 1990s, on a tram on her way to classes. “A Romani woman came on the tram and she had crutches,” she recalled. When Bukovska asked a man to give up his seat for the woman, he refused because the woman was “‘just a gypsy.’ I had a revelation then that I had to help the Roma.”

Bukovska earned her master’s degree in law at Charles University Law School in Prague in 1997. During and after her studies, she worked with a human rights organization in Prague to prosecute cases of discrimination in Czech society.

In 2001, Bukovska was just beginning to investigate claims of discrimination in Slovakia when she stumbled upon what she is now convinced was a sterilization program. While the practice was said to have ended with the fall of Communism, Bukovska said officials have looked the other way in full knowledge that it continues.

“In Slovakia, the racism is more blatant than in the Czech Republic,” she said. “The Slovaks say by 2010 or 2020 there will be more Roma in Slovakia than whites, and all these Roma without an education will be a huge burden on the system. The government says ‘we’ll do anything to be sure of more white births than Roma.’” Bukovska and several colleagues set up the Center for Civil and Human Rights in Slovakia and immediately sought assistance from the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York to assess the magnitude of the sterilizations and plan a legal response. After in-depth interviews with doctors, nurses and Romani women, Bukovska and another lawyer documented 140 cases of sterilization. She believes the real numbers are much higher. “We only spoke to women in 40 settlements out of 600.”

The two organizations published a joint report in 2003 detailing the extent of the problem and implicating the Slovakian government in a campaign that Bukovska says was “touching on genocide.” She said the government, worried about jeopardizing its chances of membership in the European Union, launched a criminal investigation of her and other authors of the report. “They threatened to imprison us no matter how the case came out,” she said. “We were accused of trying to keep Slovakia out of the EU.” The case was eventually dropped, which Bukovska attributes to pressure from the EU and the United States. Bukovska and her colleagues filed their own complaint in April with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), where it was put on a fast track. She will argue the case in late 2005, representing three Romani women.

Bukovska arrived at HLS this past August, hoping to gain a broader understanding of international human rights law. “I also wanted to reflect on what I was doing,” she said. “I’m taking a human rights advocacy course, which deals with a lot of issues I hadn’t been exposed to. It’s inspiring and very useful.”

Immersed in the Harvard Human Rights Program, she worked with its clinic to file another case with the ECHR representing nine more women. Another 28 cases are currently pending in Slovakian courts.

Already, Bukovska is having an impact. While the Slovakian government hasn’t accepted responsibility for the sterilizations, it now requires a waiting period and informed consent for all women prior to the procedure.

As she looks ahead to her day in court, Bukovska is not as nervous as she is eager to obtain justice for Romani women. “It’s a good sign that the ECHR gave us priority,” she said. “It means they take this issue seriously.”