ICW in Focus: Forced sterilization of women living with HIV must stop now.
“I was told I needed surgery on my uterus to get rid of cancer. It was during the post-surgical recovery when I learned that I had been sterilized”. These words are the testimony of a Namibian woman living with HIV, seeking justice today.
Forced or coerced sterilization of women living with HIV refers to the sterilization without free, full and informed consent. It has been recognized by international, regional and national human rights bodies as a violation of human rights, and as a form of torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment and punishment, as well as a form of violence against women.
Cases of forced or coerced sterilization have been reported in almost every region of the world. However, they are often categorized as anecdotal or isolated cases of medical malpractice. Forced or coerced sterilizations have been founded upon misconceptions, including about HIV transmission, and women living with HIV not being able to care for and raise their children. These misconceptions are ultimately motivated by profound stigma and discrimination, while women living with HIV continue to see their reproductive rights violated. As such, the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW Global) has called for many years for dignity and justice for survivors of forced or coerced sterilization.
Established in 1992, in response to the consistent violations of human rights against women living with HIV, ICW Global is a global network led by and for women living with HIV. ICW has led a global campaign against the systematic violations of the human rights of women living with HIV, documenting and analysing reported cases, supporting survivors and mobilizing communities, civil society organizations and policy makers alike to speak out against these human rights violations.
For example, in Namibia, ICW Global, together with the Namibia Women’s Health Network, has supported eighteen survivors of forced or coerced sterilizations to file lawsuits against the Government of Namibia. ICW and the Namibia Women’s Health Network have denounced the violation of the right to be free from cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, the right to equality, and the right to be free from discrimination, among others. Three of the cases have to date been heard in court, with the ruling recognizing that the women did not give their consent to be sterilized and ordering compensation. This recognition of the violation of the rights of women living with HIV was however met with an appeal by the Government of Namibia, which is currently before the High Court. ICW has called for the appeal to be dropped, urging global leaders to support an online petition to stop delaying justice for the women living with HIV, survivors of human rights violations. While the appeal hearing took place on 17 March 2014, the resolution of the appeal continues to be pending today.
According to Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, Programme Coordinator for the Namibia Women’s Health Network, “people didn’t even know that forced sterilizations happened – people have reacted saying that it is an embarrassment for the government. We are not attacking; we are asking the government to do the right thing.”
The cases brought to court in Namibia are mirrored by similar struggles being fought by women living with HIV and ICW in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Sophie Brion, Law and Public Policy Fellow at ICW Global, says that "successful cases in Namibia and other countries in Africa will not only create important legal precedent but will also send a critical message to governments and health care providers that the human rights of women living with HIV must be protected and that barriers to care such as stigma and discrimination must be meaningfully addressed."
Women living with HIV face multiple violations of their sexual and reproductive rights, with the reported cases of forced or coerced sterilization only showing the tip of the iceberg of challenges faced. Nevertheless, according to Jessica Whitbread, ICW Interim Global Director, “one of the effects of forced or coerced sterilizations in the context of the HIV response, is the generation of wide-spread fear among women to seek life-saving HIV prevention, treatment, care and support services.” In addition, women surviving forced or coerced sterilization are faced with additional stigma and discrimination, no longer being able to conceive and carry a child. In the face of these violations of the rights of women living with HIV, ICW continues to exercise its leadership, by raising its voice for the most marginalized, and staying at the forefront of ensuring the respect and protection of the rights of women living with HIV.
Greater support from partners around the world is needed to end forced or coerced sterilizations against women living with HIV, and raise awareness of the ongoing rights violations faced by women and girls living with HIV. ICW’s call for justice must be echoed and supported across all social movements. Together with the ICW, we can stop violations of the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls living with HIV.
The Global Coalition on Women and AIDS thanks the ICW Global for taking part in this feature story, and commends its leadership and tireless efforts to uphold the rights of women living with HIV.