Women living with HIV seek justice on forced sterilisation
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Cape Town - For the past decade, the Her Rights Initiative (HRI) has been seeking justice and redress for a group of HIV positive South African women who were forced or coerced into sterilisation.
Associate director at HRI, human rights activist and researcher Sethembiso Promise Mthembu, who has worked closely with several of the victims, explained that the pain endured by the victims of forced sterilisation goes beyond the physical scars.
“The CGE (Commission for Gender Equality) investigation concluded that these women were subjected to cruel, torturous or inhuman and degrading treatment; but so many of the women describe the emotional trauma to be greater.
“Women lost respect in the eyes of their communities, had their marriages torn apart and suffered a great deal of humiliation and degradation. In many cultures a barren woman is excluded from certain cultural activities,” said Mthembu.
In regard to the matter at hand, the CGE launched an investigation which confirmed that the complainants had their rights violated by ten counts. This included the infringement of their right to right to equality and freedom from discrimination and right to dignity, bodily integrity and freedom and security over their bodies, were also violated.
Member of SA Society of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists (SASOG), former provincial specialist and gynaecologist with more than 33 years, Dr Roland Eddie Mhlanga said that forced sterilisation of HIV positive women is a violation of their right to bodily integrity.
“There has not been sufficient attention to this violation – it has been over 20 years that the practice has been known to exist. I don’t know why it took the government this long to give attention to this problem.
“The Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities, Department of Health and the Department of Social Development have not taken the case up,” he said.
Mhlanga said that he believed that poor HIV-positive women with limited education were more vulnerable to sterilisations.
“The lack of financial aid or support for NGOs probably was the reason for not litigating. The low social status of women coupled with lack of political activism also contributed, especially since the women are HIV positive.
“The media and the public in the 90s were attaching stigma to HIV infection. Public health facilities and professionals advocated this attitude. Whether enough is being done to educate the health professionals to promote and protect women's rights, including the right to bodily integrity.”
The standard procedure regarding sterilisation is for the woman to be given all information in a language that she understands, at a level that she understands so that she can make an informed decision to request or consent to sterilisation.
This must be done before the woman goes into labour – advisedly early in the pregnancy. This must also be recorded in her patient file.
Only in an emergency can this be contravened – when, for example, in order to save the woman’s life, the uterus or womb must be removed in situations where the woman bleeds uncontrollably after delivery of her baby.
It is important to inform the patient upon discharge what kind of sterilisation was done.