Namibian Trial Leads To Intensified Calls To End Forced Sterilisation Of HIV Positive Women

By Own Correspondent – Windhoek – Health and human rights activists continue to lobby in support of an on-going court case involving HIV positive women who are suing the Namibian government for damages amounting to one million Namibian dollars each, in compensation for alleged violations of their rights to be free from discrimination and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and their rights to dignity and founding a family.

In 2008, reports by the Namibian Women’s Health Network and the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS indicated that 40 women, including the sixteen who are now suing the government, had been forcibly sterilised at various public hospitals.

The current class action is the first of its kind in the Southern African region. The trial, which started in June this year, resumed on the 1st of September 2010 at the Namibian High Court. The Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services, which has been challenging the case, argues that there was “informed consent” from each of the women. However, some of the women testified that when they approached the hospitals for health services – often, in labour – they were denied services unless they signed consent forms, which is tantamount to indirect coercion. Others allege that, under duress, they were not aware of the contents of the forms until long after the procedure had been carried out.

The women maintain that these sterilizations constitute a wrongful and unlawful practice of discrimination against them on the basis of their HIV-positive status. Their argument is supported by the fact that the provision of anti-retroviral therapy to HIV positive women, which is recommended by the World Health Organisation, is widely available in Namibia; thus vertical transmission to newborns can be eliminated without restricting the reproductive rights of women living with HIV.

Michaela Clayton from the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA), one of the organisations involved in the “End Forced Sterilisation” campaign that has been established in response to these cases, pointed out that “this practice is not driven by public health rationale, but rather by health care providers’ personal ideologies regarding the rights of women living with HIV to bear children. This stigma is unacceptable from both a public health and human rights standpoint” she said.

In the past two years, the End Forced Sterilization campaign has documented cases of sterilisation without informed consent, mobilised the media and engaged in public demonstrations to put pressure on the Namibian government and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to “help end the practice of coerced sterilization of HIV positive women in public hospitals throughout Namibia, to provide recourse for the women who have been sterilized against their will, and hold accountable those responsible”. The campaign has gradually gained momentum in the region, and more forced sterilisation cases are now being uncovered in other countries such as South Africa.

At a press conference on 1 September 2010, preceding the resumption of this court case, Rosa Namises, Director of Women’s Solidarity Namibia, urged the Namibian public to join the cause and demand an immediate end to these violations of human rights. “We cannot continue to watch silently as the human rights of women are violated. We rely on the Namibian justice system to send a firm message that this will not be tolerated. Enough is enough!” she added.

The case is scheduled to proceed in the Namibian High Court until 10 September 2010.