“The doctor said, you have enough kids, you are unemployed, and no money, you have to get sterilized.” – HIV Positive Woman, Namibia.
Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet and I have previously written about the documentation of forced and coerced sterilization of HIV positive women in Namibia by the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS and the Namibia Women’s Health Network.
Two years after formal documentation of cases of forced and coerced sterilization of HIV positive women began the cases have arrived in court. The women are represented by the Legal Assistance Centre and supported by a host of NGOs working in Namibia and globally to address the issue of forced and coerced sterilization of HIV-positive women.
The cases will be heard in the Namibian High Court from June 1st through 4th. Three women will demand compensatory damages for harms done to them. The court cases come amidst support from Namibian embassies and High Commissions in Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa and the United States, to demand justice for those HIV-positive women forcibly sterilized in Namibia. Additionally a petition containing the signatures of over 1,000 people from around the world was delivered to the Ministry of Health and Social Services. The petition demands that the Ministry issue a statement explicitly prohibiting sterilization without informed consent. The signatures represent a show of solidarity from around the world, as people continue to be startled about the emergence of these cases. In Namibia, women continue to report sterilization without informed consent. Just last month the Harvard Law School Human Rights Program traveled to Namibia to document ongoing violations against women in the context of sexual and reproductive health and documented more cases of forced and coerced sterilization.
According to the 2010 Namibia Country Progress Report compiled by the Ministry of Health and Social Services, 17.5 percent of women who come into ante-natal care services in Namibia test HIV-positive. The cases in Namibia are not alone. The stories of HIV-positive women who have been sterilized against their will have surfaced in numerous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America. Extreme violations and the stigma and discrimination experienced by HIV-positive women could undermine efforts to build the trust of HIV-positive women in health care delivery infrastructure in turn driving women away from necessary and much-needed services.
The cases are emblematic of a larger, systematic attitude towards HIV positive individuals who seek to have children and are actively discriminated against by hospital staff and by the state. These attitudes permeate health centers despite advances in treatment to prevent mother to child transmission which can lower the risk of transmission to below 2 percent.
Veronica Noa, who was sterilized in 2001 in Namibia articulated this fear:
“If we are scared we might be sterilized we will not use the hospital services as much. We do not want to be denied the right to motherhood.”
Activists fighting on behalf of better access to high quality sexual and reproductive healthcare everywhere are watching the Namibian courts this week to see if good precedent will be set on the issue of forced sterilization in Namibia. Regardless of the outcome, however, the cases represent the enormous amount of potential and power held by the movement of women living with HIV and the organizations and individuals who act in solidarity with people living with HIV.