Peru: They didn't want sterilization

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Peru: They didn’t want sterilization

Twenty years ago, the Peruvian government sterilized hundreds of thousands of indigenous women by force. Roxana Olivera talks to some of these women who are still waiting for justice.


Indigenous women in Peru are still afraid. They want justice for the forced sterilizations twenty years ago. © Roxana Olivera

In the mountains of Peru, the women love playing football wearing coloured skirts with many layers (‘polleras’). But one day, about 18 years ago, the women didn’t want to play.

‘We are not strong enough to play,’ they said. ‘They cut our stomachs at the health post and it’s difficult even to walk. Our bodies are in pain.’

This was the forced sterilization of more than 300,000 women in the 1990s. The fallopian tubes of the women were cut without them knowing or agreeing.

Alberto Fujimori was president for 10 years. He started this ‘family-planning’ programme. Most of the sterilized women were indigenous, very poor, could not read, and lived in remote communities in the countryside with few services.

Threats and lies

In Chuschi (about 300 kilometres west of Anta, where communist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas began their war against the Peruvian state in the early 1980s) they thought everyone was a terrorist, or supporting the terrorists. The army killed lots of local people because they thought they were guerrillas. The guerrillas killed all the people they thought were working with the army. The killing continued for more than 15 years.

But then there were more problems for the people of Chuschi.

In about 1996, teams of nurses and medical practitioners came to look for women of the right age to have babies. They went to all the villages, to all the houses. One day, they knocked at the door of Juana’s* house.

‘They said they would give free medical services. So I told them about my stomach aches,’ Juana says in Quechua. ‘“You have a tumour,” a doctor told me. “You’ll have to go to the Cangallo health post and they will remove it. You don’t have to pay for the operation.” But I didn’t have a tumour. I came back, with 20 other women, in pain. We couldn’t walk well. We were half dead.’

‘When the doctor came to my house,’ says Dolores*, ‘my husband was drunk. But the doctor told him to sign a form to give permission. I didn’t know what was going on. The doctor said to me: “Don’t worry, the government will pay... The operation will get rid of all your health problems.” He lied. They tied my tubes.’

In Sorochuco, Matilde* spins wool by hand.

‘My children did not have enough food. A nurse said she would give me food if I agreed not to have any more children,’ she remembers. ‘She took me to the health post... I didn’t really understand what they did to me there... Nobody explained it to me. As a poor mother of four, I was desperate to feed my children.’

In La Encañada, Mamérita Mestanza agreed to sterilization after the health centre staff said they would take her to the police if she didn’t. Eight days after the operation, on 5 April 1998, she died because of an infection. Her case was the first that they investigated. On 5 June 1999 the case was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2001, the IACHR made a friendly agreement with the Peruvian State – they promised to pay compensation to Mamérita’s family, investigate the case of forced sterilizations, and punish the people who were responsible for it.

María* is in a very small village in the Andes – Acobamba - she tells the story of her aunt.

‘She didn’t want to go with the doctors. She tried to escape, but they caught her and forced her into a car,’ she says. ‘When we arrived at the health post, women were screaming and crying in fear. There was blood on the walls. I saw my aunt dead on a stretcher… but then she woke up. After that, she didn’t want to share her bed with her husband. She became like a ghost, he said. He became afraid of her and left her.’

Berta*, another survivor, tells her story.

‘“You have too many children!” the nurses said. “Let’s go to the health post now! We’ll give you pills and painkillers there.” I didn’t want to go. But they forced us...

‘I fell asleep. When I woke up, there was blood everywhere. Some women were dead. One husband demanded: “Give me back my wife! What have you done to her?” But she was already dead.’

More women died later, working in the fields: ‘After the operation, many of them had very bad headaches and bleeding. They couldn’t carry heavy things... and then they died.’

An investigation by congress found that many women died because of problems with the sterilization. The report came out in June 2002. No-one knows exactly how many women died.

Clotilde* is sitting under an avocado tree. She remembers the many visits in 1996 from medical staff from the Ministry of Health (Minsa). She remembers the year because her youngest son was one year old.

‘A nurse said to me: “You can’t continue to have children like animals! You have to have your tubes tied. It’s a new law. You have to do it, or we won’t get paid,”’ Clotilde says.

She and her husband did not agree, but the nurse became aggressive.

‘We were afraid and we didn’t want to break the law. We didn’t know what to do. The nurse spoke to my husband for a long time. Then he agreed: “Let’s leave it to God,” he told me. “If God wants to save you, he will. If not, what else can we do?”’

The nurse, Clotilde remembers, quickly gave her husband a paper to sign. He signed it, and they took Clotilde to the operating table.

It was true that the nurses had to get women for sterilization. When Fujimore was president, health practitioners had to get two women for AQV (Voluntary Surgical Contraception) every month, or they would lose their job.

Also, Minsa gave them food and prizes for getting more women eg. 15 kilos of food for getting one woman, and a holiday for three people for the health worker who got the most women.


The evidence – scars on Clothilde’s stomach. Roxana Olivera

In the Peruvian Amazon, there is very little medical care. Many villages don’t have hospitals or health facilities, so health practitioners often came in to do a lot of sterilizations to a group of women. Often, the medical teams didn’t have enough anaesthetic. But to achieve their targets, they did the operations with no anaesthetic.

‘In many of these villages, people only understood a little Spanish. Also most had never had an examination by a doctor,’ explains Sigfredo Florián, their lawyer. ‘So women didn’t really understand what happened; they believed it was sexual assault.’

The women complained, and the indigenous leaders complained formally to the minister of health in December 1997.

In her film A Woman’s Womb (2010), Mathilde Damoisel says that Fujimori’s ‘family-planning programme’ received a lot of money from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) when Clinton was president, and support from the World Bank and praise from UNFPA.

For years, Fujimori and his ministers said that the women chose surgical contraception and that it never happened when they didn’t want it.

The government also says the monthly quotas and prizes did not exist, even though there is a lot of evidence. Fujimori’s daughter Keiko, who will probably win Peru’s presidential election in June 2017, says that ‘irresponsible doctors’ were responsible. Peru’s Medical Association (CMP) were angry that she said this, and they printed a response last October in La República newspaper, saying it did all happen, and the government controlled it. Many doctors showed their orders to do as many as 12 tubal ligations per hour.

They stopped the investigations into forced sterilizations twice because they didn’t have enough evidence – in 2009, when Alan García was president and in 2014, when Ollanta Humala was president. In December 2015, Humala’s government started the investigations again and started a national list of victims. But they have charged no-one yet.

Sabina* sells corn and potatoes on the streets of Lima. She needs money for her treatment for ovarian cancer. She had four children, but the worst thing was after she had her fourth baby. ‘A nurse put cold water all over me, tied my hands and feet, and gave me anaesthetic... When I woke up, a doctor was stitching my stomach,’ she remembers. ‘After twenty years the government still does not want to pay us compensation or investigate. Will we ever get justice? Maybe when they do a real investigation, I will be dead.’

  • Names have been changed

Roxana Olivera is a journalist based in Toronto.

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