Women with HIV tell of forced sterilisations in Namibia hospitals

Demonstrators march in Vienna's streets on July 20, 2010 as part of the 18th International AIDS Conference. In Namibia, women with HIV tell of forced sterilisations in hospitals AFP PHOTO / SAMUEL KUBANI

Windhoek, Thursday

In the throes of labour, a Namibian woman was approached by a nurse who handed her a document to sign, saying the form would authorise a Caesarean section.

“I was in labour at the state hospital when a nurse showed me a paper and said I must sign to allow a Caesarean section,” she told a court last week, speaking through an interpreter.

“I did not know this was also for sterilisation,” said the woman, whose name is being protected by the court.

She only found out that she had been sterilised when she overheard two nurses discussing it in the hospital ward. Their reason was that she has HIV, which infects about 15 per cent of Namibians between the ages of 15 and 49.

The dark courtroom fell silent as the 44-year-old woman recounted her horror at the discovery, following the birth of her seventh child five years ago.

She is among 16 women who are each suing the Namibian government for 1.2 million Namibian dollars ($165,000) for allegedly sterilising them without their consent because they are HIV-positive.

It is the first such case in Africa.

More than 40 women have suffered a similar experience, with their cases recorded and presented to the health ministry in August 2008 by legal aid groups and a women’s AIDS organisation. The incidents happened at three state hospitals. Court documents state that victims only found out that they could not bear children weeks after a Caesarean section.

The three women in court this week say the procedure violated their right to life, to privacy and to freedom from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. “The law states that we should all be treated equally,” said Veronica Kalambi of the Namibia Women’s Health Network.

“That means that people living with HIV should have the same rights as everyone else — including the right to found a family.”

The Namibian government says it found that all the women had signed consent forms. “The investigation clearly established that all women who had had a Caesarean section as well as a sterilisation had signed the relevant consent forms,” Health minister Richard Kamwi told parliament before the trial.

But gynaecologist Matti Kimberg told the court that forms signed while the women were already in labour should not be considered valid. (AFP)