Women Sterilized Against Their Will in Peru Seek Justice, Again

Poor, rural, Quechua-speaking women in the Peruvian province of Anta who were victims of a forced sterilisation programme between 1996 and 2000 have filed a new lawsuit in their continuing struggle for justice.
(IPS) – Poor, rural, Quechua-speaking women in the Peruvian province of Anta who were victims of a forced sterilisation programme between 1996 and 2000 have filed a new lawsuit in their continuing struggle for justice.

In May 2009, Jaime Schwartz, the public prosecutor investigating the case against four former health ministers of the Alberto Fujimori administration (1990-2000), decided to shelve the investigation. He said the case involved alleged crimes against the victims’ life, body and health, and manslaughter, and that the statute of limitations had expired.

But the plaintiffs in the case had brought accusations of genocide and torture, which as crimes against humanity have no statute of limitation. The attorney-general’s office upheld Schwartz’s decision, overruling the complaint lodged against it by the victims and the human rights organisations providing them with legal advice.

Now the Women’s Association of Forced Sterilisation Victims of Anta, a mountainous province in the southern department of Cuzco, has decided to combat impunity with a new strategy: it is presenting a new lawsuit against those responsible for family planning policy in the last four years of the Fujimori regime.

The Association’s approximately 100 members are rural women whose testimonies have revealed the hidden side of the National Programme for Reproductive Health and Family Planning, imposed by coercion and deceit under the guise of an anti-poverty plan.

Sabina Huillca, 41, told IPS: “I remember perfectly the day they sterilised me against my will, because what they did to me made me suffer ever since. It was August 24, 1996,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm.

She is one of the witnesses who will testify before the justice authorities against those who devised and implemented the programme.

“After giving birth to my fourth daughter, I went to the Izcuchaca health centre to see the doctor. He told me not to have any more children and to have voluntary surgical contraception (VSC),” she said.

“I told him ‘No’. ‘You’re silly’, he said, ‘you will have more children and you won’t be able to raise them’.” While she lay resting on a bed, a nurse gave her an injection. “I didn’t know, and no one told me, that it was an anaesthetic,” she said.

“When I woke up, my hands and feet were tied to the bed with bandages. I was immobilised. I could see them finishing off some stitches. ‘What have you done to me!'” I shouted.

“‘We’re nearly done,’ the doctor said, and I started to cry. ‘I don’t want this, I don’t want this!’ I shouted in despair. But the damage was already done,” said Huillca, who was 28 years old at the time.

“Nada personal” (Nothing Personal), a 1998 report by human rights lawyer and activist Giulia Tamayo, commissioned by the Peruvian section of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), describes the coercive nature of the VSC programme.

The study documented for the first time the systematic use of sterilisation practices that particularly targeted poor, indigenous, rural women.

As a result of the publication, Tamayo received threats from the government. She had to leave the country and went to live in Spain, but has now returned to Peru to advise the Anta Women’s Association on the new lawsuit.

The Peruvian state has admitted that 300,000 sterilisations were performed under the VSC programme. The ombudsman’s office has collected direct testimony from 2,074 women who were sterilised without their consent between 1996 and 2000.

“The power structures that protected the authors of criminal acts are still in place, guaranteeing their impunity up to the present day. This means that the rights of women who suffered from mass forced sterilisation continue to be violated,” Tamayo told IPS.

In 2003, the Peruvian state signed a friendly settlement agreement before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in the case of Mamérita Mestanza, who died in 1998 as a result of a poorly performed tubal ligation procedure done without her consent.

The state acknowledged its responsibility, recognised the abuses committed under the family planning programme, undertook to investigate and bring to trial the government officials who devised and implemented the campaign, and promised to pay reparations to Mestanza’s family.

But the attorney-general’s office dragged its feet on the promised investigation, which made little progress before it was shelved by the public prosecutor in 2009. Meanwhile Alejandro Aguinaga, one of the accused, a former health minister and personal physician to Fujimori, was elected to Congress in 2006 and is now vice president of the legislature.

Fujimori is in prison for 25 years, convicted of several charges of corruption and human rights violations.

The state’s failure to carry out this part of the friendly agreement “is prolonging the pain of thousands of victims, because the accused are carrying on as respectable members of society when they really should be called to account in the courts,” said Tamayo, who is also a researcher for the Spanish chapter of the global rights watchdog Amnesty International.

“This time, those responsible for the forced sterilisation plan will be sued individually for crimes against humanity and torture,” she said.

Each of the accused will also be charged “for war crimes, because the coerced sterilisation was carried out in the context of the 1980-2000 armed conflict (between the military and leftwing guerrillas), when the armed forces were used to threaten and terrorise” the civilian population, Tamayo said.

Specifying international crimes (which include crimes against humanity, genocide, torture and war crimes) will allow “other countries to prosecute the accused, if the Peruvian state continues to protect them,” she said.

“The IACHR has already indicated that forced sterilisation is a matter of international law,” the rights activist said.

Tamayo said the lawsuit will be brought by the victims in Anta, because in that province “sterilisation was implemented door to door, the health authorities were given ‘quotas’ of sterilised women that they were required to meet, and all the victims belonged to the same indigenous ethnic group.”

This shows that “those who designed the programme defined its targets with abominable precision,” Tamayo said.

One of the first to take up the fight for justice in the case of coerced sterilisations was the now famous Quechua-speaking lawmaker Hilaria Supa, a native of Anta, one of whose daughters is a victim of the VSC programme.

“Since the operation, to this day, I have suffered because of what was done to me by force,” said Huillca, who lives in the rural village of Huayllaccocha, where several other cases of forced sterilisation have been documented.

“They damaged me as a woman. After that I was not able to pick up my small children, or work in the fields, which our livelihood depends on. I can’t even cook, because I get terrible pains,” she said, describing little-known consequences borne by the victims.

“I have difficulty walking; my life is full of suffering. Furthermore, in the community I am treated as second-rate, because in the village a woman who does not work is very much looked down on,” she continued, no longer able to hide her sadness.

“The worst of it all is that one of the doctors who damaged me for life is still working in the Izcuchaca health centre,” she said. “Every time I see him I feel furious, because nothing has happened to him.”

Photo by Pierre Yves Gimet.