Compulsory Sterilizations: Women’s bodies as population control tools in Latin America.
By: Moyra Oblitas
I first learned about the horrible practice of compulsory sterilization when I heard about how Indigenous Bolivian women were being sterilized under the framework of population control programs financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in the 1960s. Unfortunately, there is no "substantial evidence” about the scale of these sterilization programs but what I did discover is that some Latin American countries, like Guatemala, claim the same could have happened in their countries, targeting vulnerable women from indigenous backgrounds.
According to Nicola Henry, "victims of rape may struggle… to describe their experiences, particularly if there is a strong taboo attached to revealing intimate and personal details within their particular communities”. Primo Levi even suggests that “the one who cannot or does not bear witness is the … absolute witness because only non-language or silence can convey the inexplicability of the experience”. This could also apply to compulsory sterilization victims: the trauma experienced may explain why finding testimonies of what happened is so challenging, making the process of legal recognition difficult or even impossible.
More than 300,000 victims in Peru
Peru is the one Latin American country where the phenomenon of forced sterilizations has been officially recognized by the local government. Even in Peru however, different administrations at different points in history have denied or recognized the practice, adding to the complexity of trying to unearth the “truth”. From 1990 and 2000, more than 300,000 women and 16,000 men (the numbers might be higher), mostly indigenous, have been subjected to the dehumanizing procedure of forced sterilization. The estimated number itself is an alarming indication that the “Reproductive Health and Family Planning Program” was carried out in a massive and systematic way. The aim of such program was to reduce the birth rate from 3.6 to 2.5 children per woman. The techniques used were tubal litigations and vasectomies, both definitive, and conducted under coercive or deceptive conditions. Out of the 300,000 women, only 2,000 had the courage to report what had happened to them. The relative silence on the part of the victims has been used by government officials to justify their action. The government at the time asserted that while “there might exist some irregularities …the surgical contraception was applied voluntarily in most cases”. This has been disputed by high-ranking government officials such as, Fernando Carbone, the minister of Health at the time. Carbone reported that the process involved several high officials, including former President Alberto Fujimori who was informed regularly about the number of sterilizations done. He admitted that individuals were not properly informed of the consequences of such interventions. Julia Tamayo, a Peruvian feminist, wrote a report where she denounced the so-called “Health Festivals” carried out in rural areas, where individuals were encouraged to undergo the surgery “in lots” to cover the quotas given to the health personnel (on the risk of losing their jobs). She estimates only 10% of the women were sterilized with “real consent”. Victims declare feeling mutilated and to have been treated like animals.
"More than 300,000 women and 16,000 men (the numbers might be higher), mostly indigenous, have been subjected to the dehumanizing procedure of forced sterilization."
While former President Fujimori was convicted for other crimes against humanity, as of today he has not yet been convicted for the compulsory sterilizations program. Moreover, the principal funders of the program, the USAID, the Nippon Foundation and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); did not recognize their participations in this crime. At that time, even the World Health Organization (WHO) congratulated Fujimori for his success “to meet international demographic standards”.
A practice encouraged by International Organizations
During the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing 1995, Fujimori defended women’s access to information, emphasizing that sexual education and family planning are tools to fight poverty. E. Vasquez states that this discourse allowed Fujimori to frame his policies under “a progressive umbrella”. That discourse derives from Malthusianism according to which population planning policies, like the use of contraception, should ensure resources and environmental preservation: in other words there are too many humans for the few existing resources. In the 20th century, this ideology combined with modernization and developmentalist theories resulted in the idea that population growth and increased poverty are closely linked. This has been echoed as recently as the Davos summit of 2020 by Western environmentalists like Jane Goodall.
For modernization scholars, newly decolonized nations represented a threat to the capitalist order. They sought to transform “traditional” societies into “modern” ones, following a Eurocentric development model that was considered to be a “universal trajectory of economic growth and national integration”. While in theory that development model was inevitable because of its “universality”, in reality it demanded aggressive intervention by “developed nations”. In that sense, indigenous societies were supposed to disappear. In Bolivia, the modernization of indigenous people supposed their transformation to “peasants” (campesinos), encouraging them to identify as such and to learn Spanish (and consequently stop speaking their own native languages). For Molly Geidel, “if third-world men could appear in modernization discourses as potential desiring capitalist subjects, women appeared mostly as bodies whose sexuality and fertility posed a threat to development by creating excessive poverty and backwardness”.
"Indigenous societies were supposed to disappear."
In Latin America, compulsory sterilizations first targeted indigenous women, as not only their socio-economic situation challenged modernization theories, but also their cultures. In Peru sterilizations were carried out through tubal litigations, but International Organizations, like the UNFPA, mainly financed IUDs. While family planning methods appeared as a liberation for “first-world women” (notably by the popularization of the pill), in “third-world” countries these interventions were applied without even taking into consideration women’s rights and their autonomy over their own bodies. Guttmacher, a population expert, asserted that “IUDs have special application to underdeveloped areas where two things are lacking: one, money, and the other sustained motivation. No contraceptive could be cheaper and once the damn thing is in, the patient cannot change her mind”. The use of IUDs in developing countries is then framed in a long history of racism and colonization over women’s bodies. The methods used were meant to be definitive, not only to save money but also because they considered indigenous women as lacking discipline to take the pill. Moreover, there was a severe lack of medical follow-ups in rural areas, resulting in long-life consequences for the victims: IUDs should be replaced or removed after 5 years of use and checked if some discomfort occurs. If not, there is a high probability of infection and bleeding. The lack of medical attention paid to indigenous women further demonstrates that the policy was less about health, and more about the control of women, particularly women deemed “uncivilized”.
The Genocide debate.
What happened in Peru and other Latin American countries sparked a new debate among international human rights advocates and local feminist organizations. Jocelyn E. Getgen argues that these “reproductive injustices constitute an act of genocide” as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide includes measures intended to prevent births with “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The sterilizations were mostly directed to Quechua women even if only a fifth of the Peruvian population at that time spoke Quechua or other indigenous languages. Some women have testified to have been harassed, daily, by health-care promoters or even state officials to undergo the procedure. In the most hideous cases, women were sterilized, without their knowledge, right after giving birth and some were threatened to be separated from their babies if they refused the procedure. Getgen also states that those responsible for orchestrating the sterilizations “knew or should have known that their actions would destroy, in whole or in part, the Quechua people”. Helena Ulrike affirms that many Quechua communities “seem to be slowly contracting for lack of young people”.
"Some women have testified to have been harassed, daily, by health-care promoters or even state officials to undergo the procedure. In the most hideous cases, women were sterilized, without their knowledge"
How about today ?
Only in 1998 did the practice of compulsory sterilizations become recognized as a Crime against Humanity by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. However, it does not have universal jurisdiction as some countries have not signed it (yet). Countries with international or regional ambitions like China, Russia or the United States are among those countries.
Today, the practice of forced sterilization has not disappeared. Recently, it has been reported that Uyghur women in the region of Xinjiang in China are being sterilized without their consent by the massive use of IUDs. Uyghur people are in many ways second-class citizens since they don’t possess the economic and political capital of the Han majority. While China is not a Western power, it cannot be completely erased from the discourses presented above: the Uyghur culture itself poses a threat to the “modern and unified nation” China aims to become. Once again, women’s bodies are being instrumentalized in order to control a population or even to destroy, in whole or in part, the Uyghur people.
The hideous practice of compulsory sterilizations has not only touched Latin American countries, but many other countries that have applied modernization theories to fight poverty like Uzbekistan, India or as evidenced above; China. The practice has been often mixed with eugenic aims, targeting minorities as a form of cultural genocide. It is thus deeply racist and nurtures colonial structures in a post-colonial world. In all the cases, women’s rights are never taken into account. The recognition (both legal and historical) of compulsory sterilizations is still in debate in many countries around the world, even in Peru where they were massively carried out and where many women dared to speak to collect evidence. The lack of response and recognition questions the impartiality of the judiciary system as a whole.
Nicola Henry, The impossibility of Bearing Witness: Wartime rape and the Promise of Justice, in: Violence Against Women (2010)
Molly Geidel, “Sowing Death in Our Women’s Wombs”: Modernization and Indigenous Nationalism in the 1960s Peace Corps and Jorge Sanjinés “Yawar Mallku, in: American Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 3, Alternative Contact: Indigeneity, Globalism, and American Studies (September 2010), pp. 763-786 (24 pages)
Françoise Barthélémy, Une politique d’Etat froidement élaborée. Stérilisations forcées des Indiennes du Pérou, in: Le Monde diplomatique (Mai 2004) pp. 14-15
Javier Lizarzaburu, Forced sterilizations haunts Peruvian women decades on, BBC News, (December 2015)
Ernesto Vasquez del Aguila, Invisible women: forced sterilization, reproductive rights, and structural inequalities in Peru of Fujimori and Toledo, in: Estudos e pesquisas en psicologia, UERJ, 6th year nº1 (2002)
Jocelyn E. Getgen, Untold truths: The exclusion of enforced sterilizations from the Peruvian Truth Commission’s Final Report, Cornell Law Faculty Publications, Paper 1087 (2009)