Last week, we blogged about the discrimination often experienced by women who are HIV positive. Specifically, we highlighted a case in Maine in which a judge issued an extended jail sentence for a pregnant, HIV positive woman in violation of immigration law.
This morning, we have a disturbing addendum to the list of rights violations experienced by HIV positive women: forced sterilization.
An article by Geoffrey York in today’s Globe and Mail highlights the case of Hilma Nendongo, an HIV positive woman who found out she had been sterilized when she went back to the hospital to have stitches removed after giving birth to a baby boy by Caesarian section.
Hilma is not alone, according to York, who writes that “perhaps hundreds” of women in Africa alone “have been sterilized without their knowledge or consent in recent years because they were HIV-positive.” (Author’s note- this quote has been updated- see comments below.) York describes the experience of several HIV positive women who received bilateral tubal ligation, or sterilization, either unknowingly or forcibly amidst pressure from their healthcare providers. In these cases “consent” is often obtained by having illiterate patients sign forms that they are unable to understand, without explanation of the procedure to which they’ll then be subjected, as well as incorrectly informing patients that the sterilization operation is mandatory if they want to stay alive, or if they want medical assistance in delivering their baby.
Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to indicate that Namibia is not the only country in which such rights violations are taking place. Cases have been reported in countries all over the world, from Congo and South Africa to the United States. Angela Castellanos reports on RHRealityCheck.org that in Chile, a woman living with HIV and sterilized without her consent filed a complaint against before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) last February, charging that the government failed to protect her from being forcibly sterilized.
The pervasive nature of this tragic and infuriating global phenomenon confirms that this is more than a few cases of bad healthcare advice or doctor manipulation: this is an issue of women’s health and human rights being blatantly and consistently undermined, ignored, and violated due to the stigma, discrimination, and misinformation associated with HIV/AIDS.
And so, as tragic as the cases of forced sterilization of HIV positive women documented by York in Namibia are, we must remember that they are not just tragic. As outrageous, blatant, and infuriating as they are, they are not only these things. Forced sterilization of a woman- any woman, regardless of her HIV status- is a violation of every woman’s fundamental human right to sexual and reproductive autonomy. The right of women to control their sexuality—the basis for sexual rights—is an indivisible part of their human rights, and without it, women cannot fully realize their other human rights.
Doctors and healthcare providers- in Namibia and around the world- must be held accountable for delivering respectful and consensual healthcare. Stigma, discrimination, and misinformation cannot be allowed to continue to stand in the way of ensuring the basic human rights of women around the world.
Check out this report issued in March by the International Community of Women Living With HIV/AIDS (ICW) for more information on forced sterilization in Namibia.