HIV-positive women forcibly sterilised, Namibian court rules
In a case being watched closely by human rights groups across the globe, the Namibian high court has ruled that three women with HIV were sterilised during childbirth without their informed consent.
The case of ‘LM&NI&MH versus the government of the republic of Namibia’ has been going on for two years. The three women in question were sterilised between 2005 and 2007 after each being handed consent forms to sign during the latter stages of labour.
All required caesareans, and the women were each presented with a form written in a language they did not understand. One believed it to be concerning only the caesarean procedure, and another was given the choice by a doctor of either sterilisation or no caesarean. The judge, Elton Hoff, remarked that the practice of asking women to sign consent forms during labour was “highly undesirable“.
An unconfirmed amount of damages will be paid to the women, with their demands in the region of $120,000 (£78,000) each.
The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) has praised the ruling as an affirmation “not only of the rights of HIV-positive women but also of all women to access their sexual and reproductive rights”.
However, Judge Hoff was clear in rejecting the claim that the women were sterilised specifically due to their being HIV-positive, and in turn Harvard’s International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) has been quick to reassert that HIV was indeed the motive, and Hoff’s rejection will not aid in lessening the problem.
A joint research report from IHRC and others claims to detail “widespread instances of discrimination against women living with HIV in Namibia: segregation in health facilities, neglect during labour and delivery, inadequate counselling about HIV testing, and coerced consent to sterilisation procedures”.
IHRC goes so far as to say that “in meetings and interviews in Namibia, we were told both by public healthcare providers and former patients that a government protocol authorised the sterilisation of women living with HIV”. The Namibian health ministry denies the existence of such a protocol.
Nicole Fritz, executive director of the SALC, says that these cases are only “the tip of the iceburg”. According to UNAIDS, the number of people living with HIV in Namibia jumped from 11,000 in 1990 to a staggering 180,000 in 2009. However, the number of new infections and AIDS deaths have been declining for the last 10 years.
The troubling question arises: if indeed there has been a programme of coerced sterilisation, has this played a part in the decline in new infections?
But of course to pit women’s control over their own bodies against a reduction in HIV sufferers as two opposing possibilities is to ignore the role that education and contraception must play in the fight against the disease.