Forced sterilization is not something you hear a lot about today, as if it were some relic from a dark chapter in history. Yet, sterilization without a woman’s knowledge or consent continues to be a chilling reality for some of the world’s most marginalized women, such as those living with HIV.
I recently attended a session at the Commission on the Status of Women entitled “Beyond Denial and Discomfort: Securing the Rights and Health of Women and Youth, including those Who Live with HIV,” co-sponsored by the Center for Health and Gender Equity, International Women’s Health Coalition, International Planned Parenthood Federation- Western Hemisphere Region, and the Center for Reproductive Rights. Speakers discussed the blatant discrimination and denial of reproductive choices for many women living with HIV and how women are raising their voices to reclaim basic human rights.
Esther Sheehama, a young woman from Namibia, spoke courageously about living with HIV and the pain of discovering she had been sterilized without knowing, "It’s not easy growing up as a young, HIV-positive woman. There is so much stigma, discrimination and name-calling. They call me ‘AIDS-face.’” During a family planning visit several years after giving birth, Esther found out she had been sterilized after delivery: “My right to motherhood was violated. It’s very painful knowing that I cannot carry a child for my future husband.”
Another haunting story was shared by Vasili Deliyanis, director of Vivo Positivo in Chile. He spoke of a Chilean HIV-positive woman who was also sterilized without her knowledge or authorization. Francisca (not her real name) tested positive while pregnant and received scant information or counseling about her health. The state hospital where she gave birth performed a tubal litigation after her caesarean delivery, without discussing the possibility of a surgical sterilization or asking for her consent.
Both Esther and Vasili spoke to a persistent attitude among some health professionals that HIV-positive women should not have sex or children because “having sex endangers the health of their male partners” or “having children is irresponsible because they will get HIV or the mother will die.”
Yet, we know that positive women can and do lead fulfilling, safe and pleasurable sex lives. And women living with HIV who have access to prevention of mother-to-child transmission services like ARVs can give birth to healthy infants. Increased access to treatment has allowed women and men to live long and satisfying lives.
Their stories pointed to what’s really at stake: respect for fundamental human rights of all women, regardless of HIV status, including the right to make choices about reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence, and the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health.
Both Esther and Vasili are pushing hard for the recognition of these rights. Esther is involved in peer education with young women in Senegal, and is unabashed about sharing her story. And Vasili’s organization and the Center for Reproductive Rights have filed a complaint against Chile on behalf of Francisca before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Edinah Masiyiwa, executive director of Women’s Action Group (WAG) in Zimbabwe, was the final speaker and tied Esther and Vasili’s stories together by underscoring the need for programs that take comprehensive approaches to sexual and reproductive health and rights, like those at WAG. Such programs are critical in fighting HIV and AIDS because they address the holistic needs of women and men, regardless of HIV status, without stigma and discrimination.
I left the session feeling inspired that advocates are holding service providers and governments accountable for violations of reproductive rights. But it will take wider respect for a woman’s right to make reproductive decisions, and more programs like those of WAG, before forced sterilization is truly a relic of the past.
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