Righting the Wrongs of Forced Sterilization in Namibia

It may be one of the last places you would expect to feel unsafe, but for many Namibian women living with HIV the hospital is as scary a place as it could be comforting. For many women in this southern African nation, particularly pregnant women, health care professionals can sometimes seem like wolves in sheep’s clothing. Add HIV into the mix, and things get even more complicated.

“We often assume that hospitals are healing places,” explained Aziza Ahmed, an assistant professor at Northeastern Law School, “where people living with HIV receive medical services in a safe facility, from trustworthy health practitioners. While this can be the case, women living with HIV in Namibia often report serious mistreatment in hospital settings.”

According to recent reports, Namibian women living with HIV are often times neglected proper healthcare when and where they need it most. A combined effort from Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic, Northeastern Law School and the Namibian Women’s Health Network has found that some government hospitals are doing more harm than good for these HIV-infected women.

The report, which based its findings off of interviews from 2010, found that women were forced (or heavily coerced) into granting their permission to be sterilized. In these instances, medical personnel withheld important information concerning the procedure including its effects, risks, and ultimate consequences. Other times, women were forced to assent if they wanted access to other medical services like a child delivery or abortions, and even access to their own medical records. “At the hospital there are no human rights,” explained a Namibian woman living with HIV.

Fortunately, positive change may soon be on the way. Already made aware of the crisis, the Namibian government was found guilty by a Namibian court of violating the human rights of three pregnant women who are HIV-positive. The women, while seeking care at government hospitals, had unwittingly signed release forms which gave permission for doctors to sterilize them. Each of the women was giving birth at the time their consent was given. The recent ruling is a true progress.

While these three women can expect monetary compensation from their government, the country can expect some changes in the future. This landmark ruling has made the point that women need to, and have a right to, access information concerning these decisions. They also have a right to decide whether or not this procedure is what they want.

It is estimated that up to 210,000 Namibians are currently living with HIV—out of a country that has a population of approximately 2.1 million, which is almost 1 in every 10. While sterilization is seen as a method to help decrease this number, especially the mother-to-child transmission, it is incredibly drastic and impedes upon human rights.

“The time has come for the Government to implement its guarantees, and for the donor and international communities to support women living with HIV in their struggle for non-discrimination, equality, and rights to access sexual and reproductive health care, free from coercion and violence,” said Mindy Jane Roseman, of the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School. Non-discriminatory healthcare must now be enforced so that women no longer need to fear being defiled by health professionals.

To urge the Namibian Ministry of Health to protect the rights of women living with HIV by providing equal rights and access to healthcare free of coercion, sign the petition here.


Photo Credit: usaid.gov/sites/default/files/styles/505_width/public/nodeimage/Namibia%20OW_0.jpg

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