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By City Press

International law recognises the widespread and forced use of this practice as a crime against humanity

Anna-Maria Lombard

At least 12 South African women, sterilised against their will because they have HIV, are planning to take the government to court. Their intention follows court cases that began in Namibia this week of women suing their government over the same allegation. Promise Mthembu, a South African researcher and archivist, heard the women’s ­stories while running HIV workshops in both countries.

She has secured funding for ­research into the scope of coerced sterilisation in the region and has documented 12 cases of South ­African women who want their day in court. At the workshops roughly one in five HIV-positive women ­reported having been forcibly sterilised. Mthembu’s own experience has led her to expose a practice that is hidden and mostly denied. At 35 she is still not prepared to give up hope that she will be able to have a baby. But she has tried everything.

“When I started to explore ­fertility treatment, the gynaecologist discovered that they had cut both tubes. And tied both of them, and made a big scar. He said from what he could see it was quite violent. It was quite aggressive.” Mthembu has a successful career and a beautiful home in Durban’s western suburbs, but feels her life is not complete without a baby. She discovered she had HIV at 22 but was refused treatment at Prince Mshiyeni Hospital ­unless she signed a consent form to be sterilised.

Putting her signature to paper has haunted her ever since. ­Wherever her work took her, she started questioning HIV-positive women and it soon became clear to her that coerced sterilisation is nothing less than medical ­violence.

Her campaign to expose it has steadily gained supporters and momentum. In international law, widespread and systematic forced sterilisation is recognised as a crime against humanity. The women suing their government in the Namibian courts are each claiming R1.2 million for the violation of their constitutional rights to found a family, to family planning, the right to dignity, equality, freedom from inhuman and degrading treatment and freedom from discrimination.

The Namibian government has vehemently denied that this ­practice occurs at all, relying mainly on the defence that the women signed consent forms. It is not just about money, the women say. They want acknowledgment that the practice exists. They want an apology, and prohibition of such practices. In South Africa, two sisters from Durban’s Umlazi township were among the first cases Promise Mthembu documented. Nomasilethi Ndaba* was 22 and her sister Clara Zitha* (not their real names) only 19 when their babies were delivered by Caesarean ­section, also at Prince Mshiyeni hospital.

Zitha says the doctor bamboozled them into signing consent forms. “He said HIV-positive people are troublesome because they keep getting pregnant.” Both sisters say they were made to sign consent forms when they were at their most vulnerable, during the labour process. They are now both in stable relationships and their babies are toddlers. They have proved their fertility and ability as mothers. So the new men in their lives have every reason to view them as good marriage partners.

But for the women, being sterile is worse than having HIV. “My conscience eats away at me. This person will take me to be his wife, but I can’t have a child by him. It’s most painful because he doesn’t have any children,” says Ndaba. In the northern Namibian town of Ondangwa, a woman known only as HN, because the court has ordered her name to be withheld, learned the hard way what full ­disclosure could mean.

Four years ago she delivered a baby boy by Caesarean at a ­hospital in Windhoek and when she returned a few months later to ­collect birth control pills, the nurse said she didn’t need contraceptives – she had been sterilised. When she told her husband, he left her. HN shared her story with Mthembu during a workshop for young women living with HIV in Namibia in 2008. At the workshop, over 40 cases were documented.

Baby Blues, the story of Promise Mthembu and the women she is helping to reclaim their lives, produced by Health-e News Service, will be screened on E.TV’s Third Degree on 22 June

Two sisters, one shared trauma … both Nomasilethi* and Clara* (identities protected) face the same uncertain future if their partners discover their secret.

“Promise Mthembu’s personal testimony is encouraging a number of women to reclaim their basic human rights.”


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