Namibian Government Implicated in Involuntary Sterilizations of HIV-Positive Women

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.

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
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.