In Namibia and Beyond, Forced Sterilization is a Human Rights Violation

Lori Adelman

Forced sterilization of any woman, regardless of her HIV status, is not just an unfortunate biproduct of medical arrogance- it is a violation of every woman's fundamental human right to sexual and reproductive autonomy.

Last week on Akimbo, the IWHC blog, we posted about the discrimination often experienced by women who are HIV positive. Specifically, we highlighted a case
in Maine in which a judge issued an extended jail sentence for a
pregnant, HIV positive woman in violation of immigration law.  

This morning, we have a disturbing addendum to the list of rights
violations experienced by HIV positive women: forced sterilization.

An article
by Geoffrey York in today’s Globe and Mail  highlights the case of
Hilma Nendongo, an HIV positive woman who found out she had been
sterilized when she went back to the hospital to have stitches removed
after giving birth to a baby boy by Caesarian section.   

Hilma is not alone, according to York, who writes that "perhaps
hundreds" of women in Africa "have been sterilized without their
knowledge or consent in recent years because they were HIV-positive."
York describes the experience of several HIV positive women who
received bilateral tubal ligation, or sterilization, either unknowingly
or forcibly amidst pressure from their healthcare providers. In these
cases "consent" is often obtained by having illiterate patients sign
forms that they are unable to  understand, without explanation of the
procedure to which they’ll then be subjected, as well as incorrectly
informing patients that the sterilization operation is mandatory if
they want to stay alive, or if they want medical assistance in
delivering their baby.

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Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Namibia
is not the only country in which such rights violations are taking
place. Cases have been reported in countries all over the world, from
Congo and South Africa to the United States. Angela Castellanos reports on RHRealityCheck.org that in Chile, a woman living with HIV and sterilized without her consent filed a complaint against before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) last February, charging that the government failed to protect her from being forcibly sterilized.

The pervasive nature of this tragic and infuriating global
phenomenon confirms that this is more than a few cases of bad
healthcare advice or doctor manipulation: this is an issue of women’s
health and human rights being blatantly and consistently undermined,
ignored, and violated due to the stigma, discrimination, and
misinformation associated with HIV/AIDS.

And so, as tragic as the cases of forced sterilization of HIV
positive women documented by York in Namibia are, we must remember that
they are not just tragic. As outrageous, blatant, and infuriating as they are, they are not only these things. Forced sterilization of a woman- any woman, regardless of her HIV status- is a violation of every woman’s fundamental human right to sexual and reproductive autonomy.
The right of women to control their sexuality-the basis for sexual
rights-is an indivisible part of their human rights, and without it,
women cannot fully realize their other human rights.

Doctors and healthcare providers- in Namibia and around the world-
must be held accountable for delivering respectful and consensual
healthcare. Stigma, discrimination, and misinformation cannot be
allowed to continue to stand in the way of ensuring the basic human
rights of women around the world.

Check out this report
issued in March by the International Community of Women Living With
HIV/AIDS (ICW) for more information on forced sterilization in Namibia.

Author’s note: The reader diary originally misquoted York as attributing "perhaps hundreds" of forced sterilizations to Namibia rather than to Africa at large, and has been updated to reflect these changes.

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