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The Quipu project: testimonies of forced sterilisation in Peru

The mass forced sterilisations of Peruvians is one of the grave human rights violations of our time. But the practice, and its consequences, rarely receive widespread coverage and condemnation.

I have been in pain since the sad moment I got sterilised. I have stomach pains since the sterilisation. I came only to speak about the sterilisation.

So says Testimony 1/58, whose voice has been recorded by the Quipu project. Set up as a collaboration between academics, Chaka Studios and Peruvian grassroots organisations, the project has collected hundreds of stories from women affected by the Peruvian government’s mass sterilisation programme that ran in the latter half of the 1990s.

‘Before the early 1990s,’ explains Dr Karen Tucker, an academic specialising in indigenous rights and international politics, ‘women did not have good access to contraception. The influence of the Catholic church was very strong in the country, and reproductive rights were not high on the agenda. This changed when the Peruvian government launched a mass programme offering a range of contraception options, including sterilisation to both men and women. The programme used the language of choice and empowerment – it was sold with the promise that, irrespective of social class or location, families would at last have access to a range of contraceptive options.’

By the time the programme came to a close in the early noughties, it was estimated that 272,000 women and 21,000 men had been sterilised – the vast majority from rural, indigenous communities. Many of these women were forced into sterilisation, sometimes with violence. Many more were not given the time or information they needed to make an informed decision about their reproductive choices which is, in itself, a form of coercion. At least 13 women and two men died as a result of complications arising post-surgery, or through poor aftercare.

They took me. I went for a health check at the clinic. I was pregnant at the time so I went in for a check up. They told me you are not pregnant so we will sterilise you. They put me in the ambulance by force and took me to the clinic in Izcuchaca by force. -- Testimony 24/58.

The mass sterilisation of Peruvian women is one of the grave human rights violations of our time. Yet beyond the odd special report on the news, it is not often spoken about. The launch of the Quipu project on 10 December hopes to change this. The project has collected the voices of women from across Peru on an interactive website where visitors can listen and respond with a message of solidarity.

‘It’s been a collaborative effort from the beginning,’ Tucker says, ‘between academics in Bristol, Chaka Studio in London, and the women in Peru who have shared and collected the stories. We worked with women’s organisations in Peru to see what they wanted and how they wanted to get their stories out there. We developed a phone line that women could call to share their stories; stories that we can then put online.’

One of the great challenges the project faced was how first to tell women about the phone line, and then to encourage them to call in and share their stories. It was the Peruvian women rights activists in the country who developed an ingenious solution: ‘story hunters’. These were volunteers who took mobile phones into communities affected by the mass sterilisation. Here, they spoke directly to the women living there and asked them to participate by using the mobile phones to call the number and speak out.

‘What was so great for me,’ says Tucker, ‘is that with the story hunters we were very much in the background. It was a moment where grassroots women’s activists had an idea, took ownership of it, and we were able to provide the technology they needed to run with it.’

The story hunters was just one of many ways the project collected testimonials, and now the Quipu project has a rich and growing collection of women’s voices; all speaking out about their experience of the mass sterilisation programme and the impact it has had both on their own lives and their communities.

I asked Karen whether she saw the project as a way of giving women a voice. It’s a term she’s quick to reject.

‘It’s an expression that’s used a lot,’ she says, ‘when we try and shed light on perspectives that aren’t usually heard or visible, or allowed to be heard. But I find it quite a problematic term because it replicates an unhelpful power dynamic where we in the west assume we are the ones “giving” women a voice, we are the ones who decide whether they get to have a voice or not.

‘Because the truth is, these women already have voices. They have voices and they’ve been using them. They problem is, they haven’t been heard.’

The Quipu project is very careful about how it presents the women’s stories. The experience of listening to the women is unmediated – there is no voiceover or presenter putting the women’s narrative into a context. Instead, the women’s voices speak out and the listener hears their stories and truths directly.

Still from The Quipu Project. All rights reserved.

‘By not adding in layers of interpretation,’ Tucker explains, ‘the listener hears the women in their own words. It means we could stay true to each individual woman’s vision, as they talk about what sterilisation meant for them. In a world where these stories aren’t being heard, where these voices haven’t been heard, it felt important both politically and ethically to create a space where, as much as possible, no outside voices were mediating between each individual woman and the listener.’

I was also sterilised and I am now ill, taking tablets and medication. They very least I need is the support of doctors, so they can send medication to Anta. The majority of women in Anta are now severely ill from the sterilisation.’ -- Testimony 18/58.

The barbarism of a mass sterilisation programme run with coercion, misinformation and resulting in deaths can make it seem that this is something from the long-distant past – a crime committed at the turn of the last century, not this one. I’m curious to understand from Dr Tucker why she thinks the programme took the abusive turn it did, and what it says about attitudes to women’s bodies.

‘Peru is a very divided country,’ she explains. ‘The only way I can make sense of the abusive turn the programme took is to look at attitudes towards race and towards indigenous women. Many in the country believed that the indigenous population were backwards, that they didn’t know what was best for them; that they didn’t know how to look after themselves. It were these attitudes which led to the sterilisation becoming more interventionary, and less about a woman’s choice.’

However, these attitudes are not confined to Peru. The patriarchal idea that men know what is best for women’s bodies is found across the world – including in our own medical establishment.

‘That patriarchal attitude towards women’s bodies is common around the world, and is particularly visible when talking about fertility and reproductive issues,’ Tucker argues. ‘When that is mixed in with attitudes towards race and indigenous people, then you have this situation where the medical professionals believe all these damaging stereotypes about women in rural communities. And so something that was supposed to be about free choice instead become something abusive and coercive.’

We were forcibly sterilized. Because prior to that we did not know what sterilization was. And that is how they did it to us, coming from Zurite, a campaign led by nurses from Zurite, because we had many children, like guinea pigs.”’ -- Testimony 5/58.

Since the sterilisation programme started, women’s rights organisations in Peru have been speaking out and demanding recognition of the violation done to the country’s women. After years of being ignored, finally the Peruvian government is beginning to recognise that action must be taken to remedy the wrongs of the past twenty years, as well as recognising that this assault on women’s reproductive rights is a human rights issue. They are now developing a register of women and men who were affected, with the ultimate aim of providing compensation. I ask Karen if she believes Quipu will have a role in supporting these moves for reparations.

‘Quipu has its own purpose and function,’ she explains. ‘It’s about creating a platform where the women’s stories are shared. That said, I would hope it provides a body of evidence which means no one can ignore what happened and the scale at which it happened. It would be wonderful if the project could serve that bigger function.

‘My immediate hope for the project is that it takes on a life of its own and becomes a living documentary that exists on the internet and through the phone line in Peru that prompts conversation and recognition of what happened. But ultimately my biggest dream personally is that Quipu forces a shift in the whole discourse about women’s rights and indigenous rights. I want to see it become less possible and less acceptable to think about and speak about indigenous women in the ways that meant this abuse was allowed to happen. On a more practical and tangible level, that means an acknowledgement that what was done to these women was wrong. That it should never have happened.’ 

I went to the clinic and they told us we had to get ourselves sterilised. I didnt want to.’ -- Testimony 46/58.

About the author

Sian Norris is a writer and feminist activist. She is the founder and director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival, and runs the successful feminist blog sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, the New Statesman. Her first novel, Greta and Boris: A Daring Rescue is published by Our Street and her short story, The Boys on the Bus, is available on the Kindle. Sian is currently working on a novel based around the life of Gertrude Stein. 


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