HIV positive women sterilised without consent

Almost 500 women in South Africa were robbed of the chance to have children after they were sterilised against their wishes because they were HIV positive‚ it emerged following the release of the SA National Aids Council’s stigma index.

It is the largest number of reported forced sterilisation cases ever to have been uncovered in the country.

The index was compiled after 10‚473 people living with HIV in 18 districts across the country were interviewed to determine the level of stigma and discrimination against people with HIV.

The survey also included one question that asked the 6719 women sample if they had been forcibly sterilised because of their status. A total of 498 said yes, according to Professor Khangelani Zuma from the Human Sciences Research Council that conducted the survey.

Zuma was confident the data was correct and that the women who were interviewed understood the question about sterilisation.

All respondents to the survey were anonymous and cannot be traced so action could not be taken against the Department of Health or hospitals at which sterilisations took place.

"This is a violation of human rights. It is extremely difficult to investigate the 498 cases because the survey was anonymous, but it is criminal to force anyone to undergo a procedure unless it is life-threatening," spokesman for the Department of Health, Popo Maja, was quoted as saying.

Most cases were reported from Eden in Western Cape (22%), followed by Buffalo City in Eastern Cape (20%) and Sedibeng in Gauteng (19%).

"This is horrific and indicates this silent practice took place," said lawyer Jody-Lee Fredericks of the Women's Legal Centre.

"The data of 498 cases basically confirms the practice is widespread.

"It is systematic. It is not a few rotten apples. This number suggests to us that this is the implementation of some kind of policy which the Department of Health needs to explain. It costs money to sterilise people, therefore it must be coming from a silent government policy. The department must be held accountable," said Sethembiso Mthembu, founding director of the NGO Her Rights Initiative.

But spokesman for the Department of Health Popo Maja said: "It is not the policy of public health to force people to have any medical procedure or forced sterilisation.

"This is a violation of human rights. It's extremely difficult to investigate the 498 cases because the survey was anonymous ..." he said.

According to the Sterilisation Act, written consent of a patient who understands what they are signing is needed before sterilisation can take place.

Head of the SA National Aids Council Fareed Abdullah said the sterilisation figures needed to be interpreted with caution as they were based on self-reporting of women rather than a biological examination. "The figures must be interpreted with caution because this stigma survey was not set up to measure sterilisation or coerced sterilisation.

"It was to measure stigma. The only conclusion we can draw is that this may be a problem and the Health Department should investigate it further."

It is not the first time forced sterilisation of HIV-positive women has come to the fore in South Africa. Fredericks has lodged a separate complaint of 48 cases of forced sterilisation with the Commission for Gender Equality that was uncovered by Her Rights Initiative.

In those cases, some of the women only found out about the sterilisation when they struggled to have children. Many of the 48 were sterilised immediately after giving birth at a hospital and three quarters of the cases took place after 2004 when ARVs were made available.

Because most of the 48 cases are more than three years old, the women cannot sue the health departments or hospitals in which the sterilisation took place.

Instead, through the complaint to the Commission for Gender, the women are seeking redress from the Department of Health and the minister of health.

The Department of Health, which has acknowledged the complaint, has until tomorrow to respond.

Another finding of the survey was that 37% of the respondents said that access to ARV treatment was conditional on the use of contraceptives.

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