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Time for Serbia to Uphold Rights of Women with Disabilities

UN Committee Finds New Evidence of Violence in Institutions

A room in the Veternik Institution for children and adults with disabilities where 540 persons, including children with disabilities live. Up to eight people live in one room. © 2015 Emina Ćerimović for Human Rights Watch

A recent review of Serbia finds that the government is failing to protect women with disabilities in institutions from violence. In its report, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) also criticized Serbian laws that deprive women with disabilities of their legal capacity, the right to make decisions for themselves, and prevent them from accessing justice.

In 2015, Human Rights Watch found that when women with disabilities are deprived of legal capacity and held in closed institutions in Serbia, violations of their right not to receive treatment without consent and to be free from violence occur. Institution staff and doctors described invasive reproductive health interventions performed on women without their consent and often without their knowledge, including the insertion of intrauterine devices (for birth control), administration of pap smear tests (a screening procedure for cervical cancer), and termination of pregnancy. Disability Rights International-Serbia (MDRI) in 2016 found similar violations.

Medical staff in institutions told Human Rights Watch that under Serbian law, when a woman is placed under guardianship, the guardian’s consent alone is enough to carry out these procedures. Women with disabilities under guardianship in institutions are often not allowed to make decisions about their reproductive health and may be uninformed about the effects of procedures.

Human Rights Watch interviews with three local NGOs in 2018 and 2019 found that these practices persist in institutions across Serbia. In February 2019, in a joint submission with Women Enabled International and Disability Rights International, Human Rights Watch shared these concerns with the CEDAW committee.

In its conclusion, the CEDAW committee recommended that Serbia repeal laws “that restrict the legal capacity of women on the grounds of disability or any other form of discrimination” and that it ensure unhindered access to sexual and reproductive healthcare for all women, including women with disabilities in institutions, guaranteeing free and informed consent.

So long as there is no accountability for coerced reproductive health interventions, these abuses will continue. The Serbian government should implement the Committee’s recommendations and support the right of all people with disabilities to make decisions for themselves.

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