Romani Women’s Right to Equal Treatment in Hungary
In February 2016, a Romani woman gave birth a public hospital in Miskolc, north-eastern Hungary. During labour she cried out with pain and the midwife yelled at her “if you shout once more I will push the pillow into your face”. When the woman apologised, the doctor said to her “if you had shouted once more I would have called the psychiatrist to take away child away and then you wouldn’t receive Child Benefit, because anyway, you gypsies give birth only for the money!”
In April 2016, the claimant filed a complaint before the Equal Treatment Authority (Authority) (an independent body set up by the Hungarian government to receive and deal with individual and public complaints about unequal treatment). She alleged that she was a victim of verbal harassment based on her ethnicity related to her sexual and reproductive health. Her claim was based on the Equal Treatment Act, which transposes the European Union’s Directive 2000/43/EC to national law, and guarantees equal treatment in respect of, inter alia, health care, including sexual and reproductive health. In May 2016, the hospital advised that its internal investigation had not confirmed the harassment allegation. Further, the hospital noted that the only recommendations (relevant to the allegation) given by medical professionals to women in labour were to use special breathing methods and avoid shouting in order to maximise their ability to push.
In June 2016, the Authority held a hearing in the case. At this stage, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) joined the proceedings to provide legal representation to the claimant. Following an expression of interest by the hospital for a friendly settlement, the claimant proposed:
1. That the hospital issue a public apology and pay 500,000 HUF (around 1,700 USD) as compensation for the violation of her right to equal treatment.
2. In order to prevent similar harassment happening in the future, the hospital should:
- Within two months, notify hospital staff that any discrimination towards Romani women and their new-born babies is illegal and will be sanctioned;
- Within two months, allow the Authority to hold equal treatment training for the obstetrics department; and
- Agree that, for one year following the settlement, ERRC staff will be permitted to hold interviews with Romani women in the care of the obstetrics department about their experience regarding equal treatment.
As the hospital did not respond to the proposal, the Authority held a second hearing in October 2016. Again, while denying that any rights violation had occurred, the hospital initiated a friendly settlement on the condition that the claimant would withdraw her grievance fee request. The claimant agreed to this condition if all of her other proposals were implemented as requested.
In November 2016, the hospital notified its staff that it would allow the Authority to disseminate its materials on equal treatment in the hospital, to hold a training on equal treatment for the obstetrics department, and to conduct interviews regarding equal treatment in the hospital. The hospital did not apologize to the claimant. Given the lack of apology and refusal to allow ERRC, rather than the Authority, to conduct hospital interviews, the claimant did not agree to the friendly settlement and requested a continuation of the legal proceedings.
Consequently, on 15 December 2016, the Authority ruled that the hospital had violated the claimant’s dignity and right to equal treatment based on ethnicity, given the statement “you gypsies give birth only for the money”. The Authority ordered the hospital to pay a public fine of 500,000 HUF (approx. 1,700 USD) and to make the decision public for 60 days on the hospital’s website. (The Authority has no power to order compensation, only to impose a public fine). The Authority found that the hospital’s investigation was not fair and unbiased given that: the doctor who harassed the claimant also undertook the subsequent hospital investigation; and, at that doctor’s request, the hospital staff concerned had formulated their version of the facts together. Conversely, the claimant had presented consistent, persuasive testimony, and was able to distinguish between those who were only present at the event and those who had discriminated against her. The Authority also took into consideration that, while in labour, the claimant was in an especially sensitive situation that rendered her more vulnerable, and that the hospital failed to submit any documentation regarding the hospital investigation of the allegations.
The hospital has already implemented the decision: it paid the fine and published the decision for 60 days on their website. In terms of wider outcomes, there was a great deal of media attention surrounding the case so it reached the general Hungarian public. According to Judit Geller (ERRC), “most of the media reported the case sympathetically and with sensitivity. The hospital, however, remained mostly silent and refused to speak to the media.” ERRC continues to monitor the situation in the region in order to determine whether or not similar discriminatory practices continue.
European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC)
This is the first case in Hungary where a decision-making body found a violation of the right to equality – specifically, discrimination in the form of harassment based on ethnic stereotypes – in connection with statements made to a Romani woman based on her ethnicity in a health institution, in connection with reproductive health rights. This decision also highlights the attention paid by the Authority to the vulnerable situation of women giving birth alone in hospital.
As stressed by Judit Geller (ERRC), the decision should be understood in the wider context of continued widespread discrimination against Roma communities across Europe, as well as in relation to State obligations within the international legal framework to adopt a substantive equality approach to ensuring non-discrimination and equality for all persons in all situations. This approach requires consideration of, and positive measures in response to, statements and actions based on stereotypes (for example, see Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). It also provides useful guidance of a concrete situation involving overlapping identities, namely ethnicity and gender, leading to instances of intersectional discrimination.