Over 40 HIV-postive women who were allegedly sterilized against their will go to court to demand justice and possible compensation. The chairperson of the National Gender and Equality Commission Winfred Lichuma who is championing the women’s cause described what happened to the women as “atrocious an infringement of their human rights and contrary to medical ethics.” “Those responsible should be punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Lichuma said during the launch of a report on coerced sterilization of HIV women by medical personnel. The study was conducted this year in Kakamega and Nairobi.
According to the report, most of the forced sterilisations —75 per cent— were conducted in public hospitals while the rest were carried out in private hospitals. Majority of the women are from low-income cadres of society. Most of them claim they were not aware and did not understand what they were being asked to sign as they were in active and difficult labour at the time. Some of the women were also unconscious and could therefore not give consent or are illiterate and were asked to sign a document which turned out to be an authorization for the procedures.
In some instances, some of the women especially those whose operations were done in the public hospitals, were told that the procedure was government mandated for all HIV-positive women. According to the report—Robbed of Choice: Forced and Coerced Sterilization Experiences of Women Living with HIV in Kenya— some of the women were also told threatened with having their supply of anti-retroviral drugs stopped if they did not agree to the operation.
Yesterday, some of the women victims— majority of them in their mid-to late-20s narrated how they have had to endure a life of loneliness and ostracism as they could no longer have children. “Most of the men who have approached me for marriage want children. The moment they realize l cannot have babies, they leave,” Ruth Achieng, a survivor of the coerced sterilization who lives in Nairobi’s Kibera slums said.
The women also suffer from other post-sterilisation complications which include the inability to have monthly menstrual cycles apart from marriage break-ups. “Most of these people continue to live in pain silently, as they fear talking about their conditions as a result of stigmatization and discrimination,” Faith Kasiva, the lead researcher of the African Gender and Media Initiative which conducted the survey. She called for an all-inclusive public awareness campaign on reproductive health rights and choices for women living with HIV, to enable them make informed choices.
Lichuma said the commission will push for the rights of the women to get access to their medical records to help them in their court case which will demand among others, a reversal of the operation or compensation where this is not possible. Forced sterilisation is also considered a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute and is prosecutable by the International Criminal Court. The issue of forced sterilization is neither small nor new in African according to the international lobby group, Stop Torture in Health. There are several cases pending before the courts in Zambia, South Africa, Malawi and Namibia.
Just last month, a court in Namibia ruled it was illegal for the government to sterilize without their consent, three HIV-positive women. The court rejected the government’s claims that the sterilizations had been consensual and said poor record keeping in the hospitals had left the women with no defense, and rejected the government’s claims that the sterilizations had been consensual.
The court stopped short of ruling that the pattern of forced sterilizations of HIV-positive women in Namibia constituted discrimination and is yet to decide on the women’s demand of compensation amounting to US$150,000 (Sh12.5 million). In 2009, Rwanda was forced to withdraw a Bill that would have made AIDs-testing compulsory and permitted the forced sterilization for people deemed to be mentally disabled. Sterilisation is usually an irreversible operation. It is possible to have a tubal ligation reversed, but its success will depend on the method used. It is also a very costly affair and the success rate is usually not very promising