European Interest

Forced sterilisation of women in Europe

Flickr/Stefano Corso/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Between 2010 and 2013, Spanish judges ordered some 400 women to undergo an irreversible sterilisation procedure, arguing it was in their best interests.

As reported by the Equal Times website, little is known about these women, and it’s not clear whether their health was in danger or whether they suffered life-threatening, hereditary diseases. Their only crime, it appears, was that they had a disability.

The Spanish cases together with similar incidents in Croatia, the United Kingdom and France were highlighted in a shocking new report which has thrown light on the forced sterilisation of women and girls with disabilities in Europe for the first time.

No-one is collecting figures or otherwise investigating the scope of this issue, says An-Sofie Leenknecht from the European Disability Forum (EDF), which produced the report together with the CERMI Women’s Foundation in Spain. But this is happening in Europe today, she says. “Our evidence is the testimonies that we receive from women with disabilities through our member organisations,” Leenknecht says.

“The fact that women with disabilities are still having to undergo this is incredibly surprising, even for those who work around disabilities day in, day out.”

Leenknecht is part of an unofficial coalition of disability rights and feminist activists, human rights organisations and the odd lawmaker who have been gathering testimonies, organising parliamentary hearings and releasing documentation in recent years to take these ongoing human rights abuses out of the shadows and into the limelight.

Forced sterilisations occurs when a woman undergoes a surgical procedure – which involves blocking or sealing her fallopian tubes – without knowing what it is, without consenting to it or without authorising it.

According to Equal Times, under international human rights standards, it constitutes a violation of the human right to be free from torture and other cruel, degrading or inhuman treatment or punishment, while the Istanbul Convention, the first binding instrument in Europe aimed at preventing and combating violence against women, views it as a crime against women.

There are 46m women and girls with disabilities in Europe. As a group, they are two to five times more likely to be victims of violence than non-disabled women, according to figures from the EDF. Disability rights activists say women and girls with intellectual and psycho-social disabilities are particularly at risk of being forced to undergo sterilisation.

Another marginalised group that has been particularly vulnerable to the practice includes Roma women. This is for obvious reasons, says Soraya Post, a Swedish lawmaker for the Feminist Initiative. “Both Roma women and women with disabilities are not viewed as full citizens; they’re looked at as second-class citizens,” she says. Roma are the largest ethnic minority in the European Union and have long faced high levels of exclusion and discrimination.

Under the laws of many European countries, people with intellectual disabilities and mental health problems who show an inability to “manage their affairs” can be stripped of their legal capacity.

To prevent forced sterilisations of women with disabilities, we need to change guardianship laws that deprive people of their legal capacities, says Leenknecht, describing this as a daily practice in most EU countries.

“The legislation needs to be changed so that people with a disability always retain their legal capacity, no matter the situation, but with support, of course, offered depending on the situation,” she says.

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