Forced sterilisation around the world

By Anna Aiken
May 17, 2012

Last month the BBC reported from Uzbekistan where reporters were told about a secret policy of forced female sterilisation.

Talking to doctors and women alike, stories emerged of ‘sterilisation quotas’ (up to eight per week), leading to secret sterilisations carried out during caesarean sections without the informed consent of the woman.

In many cases, the women did not find out about the sterilisation procedure until seeking medical advice when unable to conceive again. Even if the procedure is discussed with the mother, manipulation is common practice.

The BBC quoted one senior doctor from a provincial hospital: "On paper, sterilisations should be voluntary, but women don't really get a choice.

"It's very easy to manipulate a woman, especially if she is poor. You can say that her health will suffer if she has more children. You can tell her that sterilisation is best for her. Or you can just do the operation."

Cases of forced or ‘compulsory’ female sterilisation are unfortunately not confined to Uzbekistan.

In Namibia, there were many cases of HIV positive women being sterilised without their informed consent. This was carried out under the guise of preventing mother to child transmission of HIV. Aside from being a flawed argument (if managed correctly, the chance of mother to child transmission is below five per cent. If delivered by caesarean section, the risk falls to one per cent ), ‘consent’ was often obtained unfairly.

Some women were presented with handwritten ‘consent forms’ in the middle of labour, written in technical terms which could not be understood; some were told that the form was for basic medical services; some were told that it was a standard form for new mothers. In 2010, three women took the state to court over this abuse of their human rights.

In South Africa, HIV status was also recently reported to be a motivating factor in cases of forced sterilisation. In December 2011, The Guardian reported the story of Nonqaba Jacob, an HIV-positive woman and activist who was forcibly sterilised at Karl Bremer Hospital in South Africa while delivering her daughter via caesarean section.

In India, sterilisation is widely used as a method of family planning. However, reports also reveal that financial and material incentives, ranging from cars to phones to food processors, are often offered to persuade the women to undergo the procedure, exploiting their poverty to slow population growth.

One Indian NGO recently studied the so-called “sterilisation camps” in Uttar Pradesh, which form part of the regions family planning programme. Grave concern was expressed at the lack of emphasis placed on informed consent and the standards of health care provided during and after the procedure. The vast majority of the patients are poor, rural women who are often illiterate and unaware of their rights. The World Bank, USAID and DFID have all been linked to the funding of such policies across India.

Closer to home, you may remember when Project Prevention hit the headlines offering cash rewards (£200) to drug addicts to undergo sterilisation. Project Prevention did not succeed in sterilising addicts in the UK due to the lack of endorsement from the British Medical Association, but money is still used to incentivise addicts in the USA.
Although this is not 'forced' in the same way as some of the above cases, exploitation of weakness is the common thread: poverty; illiteracy; health status; drug dependence; gender. Exploitation unites the experiences of the women in Uzbekistan, India, Namibia, South Africa, the UK and the USA.

What does this mean in the context of a Christian view of personhood? The gospels are a story of the great potential of each person and the respect and care we should have for each other. Actions which reduce the scope of a person’s life, take away opportunities, humiliate, exploit or undermine should be resisted and condemned. For those who have had control over their fertility permanently removed, who have had their personhood undermined in this deeply personal way, there must be full acknowledgement of the injustice done in order for healing to begin.

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© Anna Aiken is a graduate of Birmingham University’s International Development Department. She holds an MSc in International Development, and is particularly interested in faith based development and women’s rights issues.

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