As far back as 2001, women living with HIV/AIDS were being sterilized in Namibian hospitals, without their autonomous consent. Shockingly, these women, whose cases the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS began documenting in 2008, continue to wait for redress.
Now, a group of NGOs are petitioning the Government of Namibia to stop these coerced sterilizations and are seeking compensation for the 15 women who have thus far come forward with their stories which involve three public hospitals. The campaign, called End Forced Sterilization and public petition were launched on October 15. A march on October 20 commemorated the initiation of court proceedings on behalf of 6 women seeking redress in the Namibian High Court for violation of their constitutional rights to dignity, to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to found a family and to be free from discrimination. These women argue that their consent was extracted through various forms of coercion or without knowledge as to the contents of the forms they were signing.
The petition calls on the Government of Namibia to, among other things, issue a ban on the sterilization of women without their consent and to issue guidelines to govern the procedures for obtaining informed consent. It also calls on the government to train people working in health care about the policies that guide their work and on the rights of patients to informed consent and non-discriminatory treatment, regardless of HIV status.
These demands are not new. However, this petition, which remains open for signatures, will be delivered to the government on Human Rights Day, December 10. Petitioners are hopeful that the outcry from Namibians and the international community will this time around actually force the government to change the present situation. According to the Aids Rights Alliance of Southern Africa, one of the NGOs involved in putting forward the petition, this is not presumed to be an easy victory. “The fact that the government has not offered a settlement or engaged in constructive dialogue with the parties involved is a sign that we have a significant challenge ahead.”
According to Linda Dumba Chicalu of the Legal Assistance Centre of Namibia (LAC), the group that is leading the litigation on behalf of the women going to court, the government argues is that there is no forced sterilization taking place in public health facilities. It further argues that the women gave their written and informed consent for the sterilisations. In response to a submission made to the Ministry of Health and Social Services in January 2009 by the AIDS Law Unit of the LAC, the Minister provided their assurance in June 2009 that mechanisms were put in place to address the alleged violations. However, in a statement delivered in Parliament on 2 July 2009, the Minister announced that his ministry undertook an investigation at various state hospitals and that their findings did not indicate any specific trend with regard to sterilization performed on HIV positive women. He further stated that the investigation clearly established that all women who had a caesarean section as well as a sterilisation had signed the relevant consent forms before the procedures were done. However, according to LAC, none of their clients who are on record as being sterilised were approached by the Ministry as part of the investigations. Further, LAC have expressed their concerns to the Ministry that no remedial actions are currently being taken to avoid the further sterilisation of HIV positive women without their informed consent. The Ministry has not provided LAC any further response since that time.
Through this petition, once again, the Government of Namibia is being asked to account for the rights of women living with HIV/AIDS. However, forced sterilization is one of many forms of discrimination facing women in Namibia. According to Dumba Chicalu, Namibian women face stigma even in their homes when they disclose their HIV status to their partners and are accused of having brought the virus home since they are the first to be tested for HIV.
Dumba Chicalu stresses the bigger picture when it comes to changing the lives of these women. She argues, “There is an urgent need to change the way women are perceived in society. And it will not change unless women are given an opportunity to get empowered through education, thus making them less dependent on their male partners and relatives. They should also be given the opportunity to control and own property.” Implementation and enforcement remain the key obstacles. Duma Chicalu argues, “We need to find ways that will ensure the actual implementation and enforcement of these laws at the grassroots level. One of the ways to achieve actual implementation is to educate women on their human rights so that they know how best to assert their rights when confronted with a situation where their rights are about to be violated.”
In general, the petitioners believe that Namibia is “one of the most rights-respecting countries” in the region. The Namibian Constitution also provides strong protections for the rights of Namibian citizens, not to mention the relevant international and regional treaties to which it is a signatory. It is undeniable that the rights of the women whose cases were documented, and possibly others who stories are not yet known, have been violated. A positive response from the government in respect to these cases would make an essential contribution to efforts to fight the underlying problem of stigma and discrimination facing people living with HIV that encourages the sterilisation of these women again their will.