Campaign against forced sterilisation kicks off

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By: Nangula Shejavali

A CAMPAIGN and a petition against the sterilisation OF HIV-positive women without their informed consent were launched in Windhoek yesterday.

The launch of the petition and campaign – titled ‘Non-negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights’ – comes just days before a case heads to court, in which 15 women who claim that they were sterilised against their wishes at State hospitals, will challenge the Ministry of Health and Social Services.

Six of the 15 cases will be heard this year, with the first three scheduled for hearing from Monday to Thursday, and the second set of three scheduled for November 24 to 27.

Reports around State hospital sterilisations of women living with HIV, without their knowledge or informed consent, first came to light in 2007.

Subsequent research by the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) and the Namibia Women’s Health Network found that in all the cases of sterilisation reported to them, the women’s right to informed consent had been violated.  The organisations say the findings are just the tip of the iceberg.

Of the 15 cases, the Legal Assistance Centre (LAC) – which will be defending the women – says 13 of the alleged sterilisation procedures were done at Windhoek’s Katutura or Central State Hospitals, while the other two took place at the Onandjokwe and Oshakati State Hospitals.

Speaking at the launch of the campaign yesterday, the co-ordinator of the AIDS Law Unit of the Legal Assistance Centre, Amon Ngavetene, said the sterilisation of women living with HIV without their full and informed consent is a serious human rights violation.

Ngavetene said the LAC hoped to see a change in the behaviour of healthcare professionals and a change in laws and policies dealing with sterilisation. 
Earlier this year, Ngavetene told The Namibian that in the majority of the cases, clients did not even know that they had been sterilised.

“Some returned to healthcare facilities to access family planning just to be informed that there is no need for them to go on contraception because they have been sterilised,” he said.

In other cases, some of the women claimed that sterilisation was a “precondition” for them to access other services, such as to undergo a caesarean section, or receive medical attention.

Rosa Namises of Women’s Solidarity Namibia said the impact of sterilisation without informed consent did not only have physical impacts for affected women, but also affected their mental health and relationships.

“For many women, pregnancy and childbirth are central to self-esteem and personal satisfaction. In a patriarchal society such as our own, a woman’s value is often determined by her ability to bear children,” Namises said.

Ngavetene added that the healthcare system, too, is also impacted by forced sterilisation.

“Fear of discrimination and mistreatment can discourage women from seeking healthcare services and can undermine the Government’s gains in the provision of sexual and reproductive health services and the HIV response as a whole,” he said.

In addition to the LAC, campaign partners include ICW, Namibia Women’s Health Network, AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa, Women’s Solidarity Namibia, the Women’s Leadership Centre and Sister Namibia. They have called on the public to sign the petition and join the campaign.

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