The 48 women who claim they were forced or coerced into sterilisation because they were HIV-positive have lodged a formal complaint with the Commission for Gender Equality in Johannesburg, reports City Press.
The women, who were between the ages of 19 and 44 when they were sterilised, want the commission to investigate the discrimination faced by HIV positive pregnant women and provide some form of redress. They say they are not just looking for compensation for the violation of their rights and the trauma they suffered but want government to help them reverse the sterilisation and also assist them with fertility programmes.
Sethembiso Mthembu from Her Right Initiative, a non-governmental organisation which has been assisting the women, said: “This complaint is very important to women living with HIV as they continue experiencing discrimination on the basis of their gender and HIV status. CGE should investigate this.”
HRI together with Women’s Legal Centre have been fighting this battle on behalf of the 48 women for more than five years. In 2010 it brought the matter to the attention of the national Department of Health but with little impact.
The department demanded that the organisation conducts a study on the prevalence on coerced or forced sterilisation in the public healthcare sector. And findings (of the study) revealed that this was a widespread problem especially in the public sector with some cases going as far back as 1986.
There is no official government policy which recommends that HIV positive women must be sterilised. However, Mthembu believes that there might be a silent policy on this in a bid to reduce the maternal mortality and the number of babies born with HIV. She described this as a very sad state of affairs as forced or coerced sterilisation has a dual impact on HIV positive women. “HIV positive women face double stigma – first for being HIV positive and then being unable to have children.”
Two more forced sterilisations of HIV-positive women – one at a private Gauteng hospital – have been revealed. The Times reports both instances, which occurred last year, were exposed by the Her Rights Initiative and the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
They bring to 48 the number of such cases, dating back to 1986, brought to light, according to Ann Strode, an advocate acting for HRI. But the NGO believes there have been many other cases of forced sterilisation but the women involved have been “too ashamed” to come forward.
Strode said she was surprised by the two recent cases. She expected the practice to have ended in 2006, when antiretrovirals were made widely available to South Africans. Instead, more than half of the 48 cases took place after 2006, even though ARVs prolong the lives of HIV-positive women and prevent mother-to-child transmission. In all the cases reported to Strode, a nurse or doctor suggested sterilisation to an HIV-positive mother.