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Namibian Women Sterilized Against Their Will

June 28, 2009

In Namibia, the International Community for Women Living with HIV/AIDS (ICW) has been investigating reports of HIV-positive women being sterilized without informed consent. They have uncovered cases in which women were told to sign consent tubes which listed the procedural known as bitubal ligation simply as BTL with no explanation and certainly no indication that it would result in permanent infertility. Indeed, some of the forms were entirely in English and not translated into the home languages of the women who were to undergo the procedure. According to Saima Moses of the ICW:

It’s a kind of discrimination. Nowadays, if you’re HIV-positive, you can have a healthy child and it’s your right [but] to doctors it’s like because a woman is HIV-positive, why should they have a child? [Doctors] assume that child is always going to be sick.

One woman tells of how she narrowly escape being sterilized:

I gave birth early at seven months – the doctors said couldn’t give me an operation [which she believed to be routine follow-up] then so they booked me for another month. When I arrived, a nurse asked me why I was there. I told her I was booked into theatre, that’s why I’m here.

First thing, when I got there I asked the nurse about this paper they gave me to sign, I was like, ‘What’s this BTL?’ She was like, ‘Can’t you see I’m alone here and I’m busy? Just sign the paper and put it on the desk. I’ll come and tell you later.

The next morning when I went to the theatre, the electricity went off so I went back to the wards to change and wait for the next day. So another came in and this time she was friendly so I asked her what a ‘BTL’ was and she started explaining.

I was like, ‘What? You’re trying to deny me giving birth to my child? Even it it’s born sick, let me take care of it.’ She said, fine then you should make a plan and leave this hospital.

That’s exactly what she did, taking her friend who was scheduled for the same procedure with her.

Two women who were not so fortunate are waiting for trial dates so that, with the support of ICW and the Legal Assistance Centre, they can seek some redress. An additional six cases could go to trial by the end of this year.

Fighting for the rights of women like these is an essential part of fighting for reproductive rights. Being pro-choice means insisting that women have a right to give birth if they choose to, just as they have a right not to do so.

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3 Comments
  1. Colleen permalink
    June 29, 2009 3:08 am

    I have heard a similar story of women being bullied/coerced/tricked into being sterilized in South Africa. Although in this case I’m not so sure it was that bad.
    A doctor who worked in a rural area once told me that he had several times pushed women into having their “tubes tied” because basically they had no power to say no to their husbands/boyfriends or make them wear condoms. Most of these women were not employed and neither were their partners. Frequently the “dads” would not stick around long enough to help care for their progeny and many of these women were saddled with 5 kids already with very little means of supporting them. I think that it is culturally frowned upon to seek infertility actively even if you already have many children.
    While tricking illiterate women into signing something that they don’t really understand is morally reprehensible, I think in this case advocating strongly for sterilisation is a positive thing for a doctor to do.

    • Emily permalink*
      June 29, 2009 11:57 am

      I think that I agree with you, Colleen, but I don’t know if I would like a doctor to strongly advocate for sterilisation. While I understand that women cannot say no to their husbands/boyfriends in the case that you mention, I also think that everyone should be allowed fertility. I think it should be ultimately the woman’s choice to have her tubes tied, and though I would like to see doctors explaining to these women different options, including getting her tubes tied for her own mental and physical health, I do not think that advocating strongly for sterilisation is the only thing to do in helping these women. I think it’s treading a fine line between coerced and convinced.

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