Landmark Trials Begin in Namibia
Three initial cases against the government of Namibia have begun in the capital, Windhoek. The cases have been brought by HIV positive women who claim that they were sterilized in government hospitals without their consent. The women are suing the Ministry of Health and social services for what they term as a violation of their human rights and discrimination based on their health status.
By Alice Mutuma
Reports of forced sterilizations in government hospitals first surfaced in early 2008, prompting the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) to conduct interviews among women. Of the 230 women interviewed 40 had been sterilized against their will. The ICW notified the ministry of health immediately, but claims have continued to be recorded even after the ministry was alerted. It is difficult to establish how many HIV+ women have been sterilized however as many women fear disclosing their status and child bearing ability due to the stigma associated with both.
The women, represented by the Legal Assistance Center with a grant from Urgent Action Fund-Africa (UAF-Africa) are seeking damages in excess of Namibian$1 million (what’s the equivalent in USD). The cases will be tried on the merits of whether or not the clients where unlawfully sterilized when they were in labor.
In its defense, the government argues that all the women who were sterilized signed consent forms. The women argue that the consent forms read ‘consent to an operation, to have an elective Caesarian Section and BTL due to her RVD status’. A majority of the women did not know what ‘BTL” (bitubal ligation) meant and assumed they were giving consent for a Caesarian Section birth. In other instances the forms were presented when the women were in labor, and not in a position to ask questions, and especially to question a doctor.
As the trials began, hundreds of women with mouths gagged, marched to the ministry of health offices to present a petition urging the government to end forced sterilization. In a show of solidarity, similar marches where held in the Namibian embassies in Pretoria, Lusaka and Washington DC. Forced sterilizations could have an enormous negative impact on the fight against HIV/ AIDS. HIV positive women who want to have other children will likely shun medical facilities for fear of sterilization, perhaps giving birth traditionally and at risk of infecting the baby during birth. This is one of the scenarios that the Namibian government must consider.
Reports from Namibia indicate that over the past 10 years, hundreds of women have been sterilized against their will in an illegal yet widespread practice. Whenever an HIV-positive woman walks into a hospital in Namibia, chances are that she could end up walking out without the ability to have children.
Shocking reports from women rights organizations in the country indicate that a 31-year-old pregnant woman arrived at a government hospital to give birth, where she was told that unless she submitted to sterilization, “she would have to deliver her baby on her own, without medical attention”
The Namibian government is potentially facing a number of lawsuits from various organizations challenging this violation of women's reproductive and human rights, guaranteed by the country's constitution and international law.
Namibia Women's Health Network is asking concerned citizens to sign a petition telling the Namibian Health Ministry to stop the forced sterilization of women.
The ruling will be delivered in September.