Sterilization: A Weapon in the War on Poverty?

On November 3rd, the Population and Development Program at Hampshire College hosted the U.S. premiere of A Woman’s Womb, an investigative documentary about the forced sterilization of more than 300,000 indigenous women in Peru between 1995 and 2000. Mathilde Damoisel, the documentary’s director, was present at the premiere to answer questions and discuss her work.

The administration of Alberto Fujimori, Peru’s president from 1990-2000, sought to reduce poverty and promote economic growth through lowering fertility. In 1995, on the eve of the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, Alberto Fujimori’s government passed a law that approved systematic sterilization of women as a family planning method. Because the Catholic Church has long opposed almost all family planning, and has had strong influence on Latin American politics, many feminist groups supported the law as a step toward a more progressive society.

However, Fujimori’s family planning policy focused on Anticoncepción Quirúrgica Voluntaria –AQV (Voluntary Surgical Contraception), or sterilization and vasectomy, instead of offering women a full range of contraceptive methods. The women interviewed in Damoisel’s documentary recounted being misinformed about the purpose and effects of the procedure. Some signed consent forms they couldn’t read, or were coerced by health care professionals into undergoing surgery. Most importantly, roughly 90% of these Quechua women did not consent to sterilization. Many of these women suffered physical and emotional effects after the tubal ligation, but did not receive medical or mental health services after the surgery.

Far from being voluntary, positive access to reproductive health services, Peru’s Ministry of Health required health professionals to achieve sterilization quotas each month. Clinics that achieved the highest number of sterilizations per month received rewards. International organizations like USAID, UNFPA, and the UN Population Fund were slow to address these reproductive rights abuses, even funding and supporting the campaign in the belief that, through reducing these women’s fertility, they were reducing poverty.

During Fujimori’s administration any opposition to the government was considered anti-nationalist, and even an attempt to destabilize the government. Defying the repressive regime, Giulia Tamayo, a lawyer from the feminist organization Flora Tristán, published a report in 1998: “Nada Personal” (Nothing Personal). The report exposes the “Festivales de la Salúd” (Health Care Festivals) the name used to describe the sterilization campaigns. Tamayo did not gain many friends after her report was published, indeed, she didn’t even have support from most feminists, who blamed her for criticizing what they considered a small compromise on the path toward reproductive rights. As a result of her publication, Tamayo had to seek exile in Spain after receiving death threats from Fujimori’s administration.

The Population Research Institute (PRI) brought the issue to the attention of the U.S. Congress through Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ). Even though this organization works toward exposing population control programs, it’s also a pro-life organization that used the women’s personal tragedy to advocate for pro-life policies in the United States, and successfully lobby former President Bush to restrict crucial global reproductive health aid. Rep. Chris Smith is well known to be a fervent anti-abortion supporter in Congress. This organization was not fighting for women’s right to autonomy in their bodies, but using them as an opportunity to advance their political agenda.

The government ended its sterilization campaign shortly after the human rights abuses against indigenous Peruvian women were exposed. In 2009, Peru’s justice system sentenced Fujimori to 25 years in prison for his role in the killing of 25 people during his administration. He was later convicted of corruption and given an additional 7-and-half year jail sentence. However, to date neither Fujimori nor any health minister under his administration involved in the sterilization campaigns have been tried for these human rights abuses against Peruvian women.

Last month, the Women’s Association of Forced Sterilization Victims of Anta launched a new lawsuit against the health administrators in charge of family planning during the last four years of Fujimori’s administration. Tamayo has come back to Peru to support the Women’s Association in this new lawsuit. She says, “the power structures that protected the authors of criminal acts are still in place, guaranteeing their impunity up to the present day. This means that the rights of women who suffered from mass forced sterilization continue to be violated; This time, those responsible for the forced sterilization plan will be sued individually for crimes against humanity and torture.” In 2009, a previous lawsuit was filed against four former health administrators, but was dismissed.

Damoisel’s documentary does not directly answer why a program to eradicate poverty would use tubal ligation as a means to achieve its goals. It does make a connection between racism, classism, patriarchy and population control, though. The great majority of these women are low-income, rural, indigenous, and illiterate; after the attack on their bodies, they continue to be marginalized. The sterilization campaign did not modernize or bring development to Peru. Yet population control advocates and international organizations still consider population control a weapon to combat poverty. Cynically, the targets of those population control campaigns continue to be the most vulnerable populations, who remain poor after such painful and coercive campaigns. What will it take to convince population control activists and international organizations that attacking poor women’s bodies will not end poverty?

Susana Sánchez, an international student from Costa Rica, works with PopDev as a Research Assistant. She came to the United States to complete her medical degree, and in the process became interested in the social problems that affect Latinos in the United States, particularly undocumented immigrants. She is a fourth-year student at Hampshire College, where she majors in immigration and gender studies. She loves to spend time with her family in New Jersey and dreams of the day she will return to her native Costa Rica to work on public policy and enjoy the country’s beautiful seashore.

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