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Forced sterilisation and women’s rights

By Leela Ramdeen, Chair, CCSJ & Director, CREDI

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere!” Martin Luther King Jr.

As I watched a programme on TV in London recently, on forced sterilisation of several black women in South Africa, the words of Frederick Douglass came to mind and filled me with a rage for justice. He had said: “The thing worse than rebellion, is the thing that causes rebellion.” Have you read about a scathing report published in February in which 48 cases of forced sterilisations have been documented by South Africa’s Commission for Gender Equality (CGE)? These forced sterilisations were conducted at 15 public hospitals in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces in South Africa.

The CGE said it uncovered “cruel, torturous or inhumane and degrading treatment” targeting black women, many of whom were HIV-positive.

An article entitled: ‘Women’s lives shattered by forced sterilisation in South Africa’, states: “South African health laws forbid forced or coerced sterilisation, although doctors may sterilise without consent in special circumstances, to save a life. Tamara Mathebula, who heads the CGE, said the probe revealed that in most cases healthcare professionals told patients that sterilisation was necessary ‘because you are HIV-positive, because you have TB, because we feel you have too many babies … you are poor, we can’t allow you to continue. But that is not the compelling reason for a doctor to tie your tubes, or to take out your uterus,’ she said. In testimonies to the commission, victims said hospital staff threatened to deny them attention if they refused to sign the consent papers. Others were forced to sign while in extreme pain, unaware of what they were consenting to, the report added…The procedures — mostly undocumented in the hospitals’ records — were conducted on women who gave birth via caesarean section between 2002 and 2015.”

Cape Talk radio says that Mathebula refers to the forced sterilisation as a “gross human rights violation…She says the report will be tabled with the national department of health as well as the CGE’s binding recommendations. CGE will also meet with the Hospice Palliative Care Association of South Africa (HPCA) and the South African Nursing Council. ‘All three institutions should tell us what is it that they are going to do to deal with the nurses and doctors involved in these cases of forced or coerced sterilisations.’ She says there are plans to meet with the health department and ask it to investigate this issue nationwide.”

The BBC states that South Africa’s health department has not yet given a detailed response to the report, but said its minister, Zweli Mkhize, had requested a meeting with the commission to discuss it.

Bongekile Msibi was among the 48 women who underwent forced sterilisation. She was not HIV positive; was a minor at the time; and her mother did not give consent. “She was sterilised without her consent after she gave birth at the age of 17, and only learned about it 11 years later when she tried to have another child.” Read about this issue on: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-51637751

Such abomination against the dignity of innocent women cries out for justice! The Vatican II document: Gaudium et Spes reminds us that: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men and women of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.”

In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope St John Paul II warned of “scientifically and systematically programmed threats” against life. He said: “…We are in fact faced by an objective ‘conspiracy against life,’ involving even international institutions, engaged in encouraging and carrying out actual campaigns to make contraception, sterilisation, and abortion widely available. Nor can it be denied that the mass media are often implicated in this conspiracy, by lending credit to that culture which presents recourse to contraception, sterilisation, abortion, and even euthanasia as a mark of progress and a victory of freedom, while depicting as enemies of freedom and progress those positions which are unreservedly pro-life” (#17).

Pope Francis has stated that “Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.”

These 48 women are also “masterpieces of God’s creation” and their dignity should be promoted. Let us pray for justice for them.

Some consider reconciliation as an impossible dream which ideally might become the lever for a true transformation of society. For others it is to be gained by arduous efforts and therefore a goal to be reached through serious reflection and action. Whatever the case, the longing for sincere and consistent reconciliation is without a shadow of doubt a fundamental driving force in our society, reflecting an irrepressible desire for peace. (3)

—Pope St John Paul II, Reconciliatio et Paenitentia

CCSJ Social Justice Education Committee