By Wezi Tjaronda
At least 10 potential cases of forced sterilisation of HIV-positive women would be heading for the courts.
The Legal Assistance Centre, which will be representing the women, has had preliminary consultations with 14 women who claim they were forcibly sterilised at the country’s public health facilities because of their HIV status.
LAC Aids Law Unit Project Lawyer, Linda Dumba Chikalu, said 10 of the cases were potential cases that would go to court. Dumba Chikalu said the centre has so far consulted one woman in full and would be consulting the other women to get more detailed statements.
New cases have come up since February when New Era wrote about young HIV-positive women who were sterilised against their will and some without their knowledge.
At stake is the violation of the women’s reproductive rights. Although almost all women said they signed consent forms, they claim they were either forced to sign in order to access other health services or signed under duress, when in labour pains. Others said they did not understand what sterilisation was. They were also denied their choice to contraception.
Apparently, after being sterilised some women went to hospitals seeking family planning services, which demonstrates that they did not understand what they had consented to.
During meetings with members of support groups of women living with HIV in the Khomas region last month, about 14 new cases of forced sterilisation were brought to the attention of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/Aids (ICW) Namibia branch. ICW Namibia is working with the Legal Assistance Centre on the issue.
ICW Namibia conducted other meetings with two officials from ICW London and Washington DC in Oshikoto and Otjozondjupa regions to determine the extent of the malpractice.
ICW Namibia Coordinator, Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, told New Era last week that they had meetings with women from support groups who claimed that they were advised to undergo sterilisation.
“We found different results in Oshikoto. No one was sterilised but there was coersion. Some had appointments made for them to be sterilised but they never went back,” said Gatsi-Mallet.
The irony of it is that most of the women who were advised to go for sterilisation expressed the desire to have more children. The perspective among many women that were interviewed is that once sterilised one cannot bear children anymore.
New Era spoke to three women earlier who said they are worried that with technological advances and the prevention of mother to child transmission programme, HIV-positive women can have babies that are negative while they may one day decide to get married only for their husbands to find out that they cannot have children.
“And what if they find a cure for Aids one day,” wondered one Khomas woman.
Aziza Ahmed, Human Rights Officer of ICW Washington DC, said women going for follow-up visits at the health care facilities were reminded about the issue, which she said instilled fear in the women and prevented them from going back to the health facilities when they fell pregnant to enrol on the prevention of mother to child transmission programme.
“This type of treatment makes a pregnant woman stay at home and not go to hospital. It discourages them from asking for advice on how to fall pregnant in view of the fact that they are positive,” said Ahmed.
Although a few women knew the consequences of sterilisation, they consented because they needed other services. Gatsi-Mallet said one woman who had asked for a Caesarian section claimed that she was forced to sign the consent form for sterilisation, failure which she would have normal delivery and her child would be infected.
“It is clear they use scare tactics. They would say your child will come out dead or you cannot access other services if you don’t consent,” said Emma Bell, Research Officer of ICW London.
Others are poor uneducated women who know nothing about sterilisation, the officers observed.
When the ICW discovered this was happening to HIV-positive women in January during a workshop with young women, this was brought to the attention of some of the Parliamentarians for Women’s Health, who promised to look into the matter once evidence was provided to them.
Deputy Minister of Health and Social Services, Petrina Haingura, told New Era last week told she needed the names of the women who were sterilised without their knowledge or consent before the ministry could decide to institute an investigation.
“It is difficult to follow up in the absence of names. We need to verify whether these claims are true or not by checking the names against the files we have,” she said.
Haingura said HIV-positive and negative people were treated the same way and said she was having a problem with believing that any health worker would sterilise a woman without her consent.
“I have never seen a nurse or a doctor who has performed sterilisation without consent. This is a very big thing which needs to be discussed thoroughly,” the deputy minister said.
For the women to develop trust in the health system again, the matter should be investigated to find out what is going on, said Ahmed, adding that the ministry was in the best position to do the investigation.
In addition, there will need to be a policy on the treatment of HIV-positive women in particular forced sterilisation, to acknowledge what has happened in the past and to have change in future, said the human rights officer.
Although the country has guidelines, Bell said they were not being adhered to.
Whether the women signed the consent forms or not, the ICW and LAC maintain that the questions remain whether the women knew what sterilisation was, whether they understood and whether they were given enough time to decipher the information before placing their signatures on the dotted line.