Buried behind closed doors lies a legal practise that allows people with disabilities to be forcibly sterilised if their guardian deems them unfit to be a parent.

Branded as a degrading violation of human rights by some and a painful necessity by others, Cyprus is one of 12 countries across the EU where forced sterilisation is legal or at least not explicitly banned.

The matter is often kept far from the limelight in clinics, homes and institutions, according to stakeholders who spoke to the Cyprus Mail.

“You’re never going to get concrete answers as to how much it happens. No one talks about it,” head of the disabilities association (Kysoa) Christakis Nicolaides said.

He is adamant however that it does take place, mostly on people with intellectual disabilities.

Last year, Nicolaides reported a case of a woman who was subjected to the procedure after she gave birth. The doctor told her “I’ve fixed you” when she woke up, he claimed.

Nicolaides has long raised the alarm that beyond ‘just’ forced sterilisations, procedures are done hand-in-hand with abortions on women who are institutionalised.

He claims abuse and rape in institutions is not unheard of – however data to back up these allegations is hard to come by.

Iacovos Valanides, chairman of the association of parents and friends of children with special needs, said he had never heard of forced sterilisations taking place.

“None of the parents I’ve interacted with over the years raised such issues with me.”

But concerns about rape behind the closed walls of institutions are very much real, he argues.

“No one can know what goes on there. These places are closed off, and especially in cases where the people can’t talk. No one will ever find out what happens.”

Gynaecologist Dr Gavriel Kalakoutis however says forced sterilisations do take place “on rare occasions”.

“It’s really only done for mentally retarded women.”

With the use of the term ‘retarded’ taking the discussion back several decades, Kalakoutis recalled a recent case of a woman who brought her 30-year-old daughter for forced sterilisation.

“There were a few guys harassing her [the daughter] so the mum preferred to have her sterilised.”

fight to ban forced sterilisation faces hurdles in europe

Spanish disability rights activist Cristina Paredero was coerced into being sterilised at 18

Under Cyprus’ laws, forced sterilisation is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and/or a fine. However, mental health laws do allow an intrusive procedure such as sterilisation to take place if their guardian consents to it.

Nicolaides describes the practise “anachronistic” and one “belonging to the dark ages of the past”.

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has repeatedly called for the prohibition of forced sterilisation. It has stressed that this practice can be considered a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Championing an EU-wide campaign against forced sterilisation is Spanish disability rights activist Cristina Paredero.

In an interview with Reuters she said she had been victim of forced sterilisation, after she was diagnosed with a form of autism aged 18.

She says her parents told her she should never have children and pressed her into agreeing to get sterilised.

Paredero, who is now 31 and angry with her parents over what happened, helped draft a 2020 law banning forced or coerced sterilisation in Spain and is now fighting to outlaw the practice across the EU.

All women have the right to decide for themselves,” she told Reuters. She has now cut all ties with her parents.

Forced sterilisation remains legal or not explicitly banned in Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Portugal, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, according to the European Disability Forum (EDF).

The Cyprus Medical Association referred the Cyprus Mail to its legal adviser who was not immediately available for comment.

Head of the gynaecologist’s association Dr Afroditi Elisseou shared that in her experience, she had never heard of forced sterilisations taking place in Cyprus.

Similarly, the latest US human rights report 2023 specified “there were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilisation.”

It did however identify that an NGO warned of “suspicious cases of persons with intellectual disabilities being subjected to abortions while living in homes for persons with disabilities.”

The report also highlighted that calls for police and social services to investigate the matter effectively fell on deaf ears as authorities “did not respond”.

Nicolaides argues the abortions and forced sterilisations are not necessarily separate issues.

Taboos on mental health and sex

Dimitris Parperis, a psychologist with the Cyprus Family Planning Association, highlighted that it is most likely fear and lack of proper education surrounding sex that pushes parents to seek out a forced sterilisation for their children.

“When people with disabilities start having sexual urges, it can be difficult for parents to navigate this.”

Already, the topic of sex education has been controversial across Cyprus. Coupled with the taboo surrounding mental health, the idea of having discussions about safe and consensual sex with people with intellectual disabilities is not as widespread as it should be, Parperis underlined.

Nonetheless, efforts are made in this direction and training programmes have been rolled out.

“It is perfectly possible for people with disabilities to have healthy and fulfilling sex lives.”

Without the talk though, people with disabilities are left more vulnerable.

He points out that although he is not aware of any current forced sterilisations, “if they happen today, it’s not acceptable considering there are alternatives such as the coil available.”

The coil offers a far less invasive procedure that can appease any concerns without violating a person’s autonomy to the degree that a permanent intervention can, he explains.

Elaborating on the concerns, Valanides said “there are cases where a woman is in no place to raise a child.” The responsibility may fall on to the grandparents who may fear for the future when they die.

In exceptional cases, forced sterilisation should happen,” he argues.

Nicolaides rejects this adamantly. “Who is someone else to decide what happens to someone else’s body? Of course people with disabilities can be parents.”

The EDF had largely campaigned to ban forced sterilisation. Efforts however fell flat when the Directive on Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence did not include the procedure.

Pirkko Mahlamäki, chair of the European Disability Forum’s Women’s Committee expressed her disappointment on the development.

“It should have been an obvious step to ban such a barbaric practice, to stop women from being sterilised against their will and without their knowledge or consent. States need to act on women with disabilities demands and ensure their rights, rather than make decisions on their behalf!”