Magazine article New Internationalist

Against Their Will

Magazine article New Internationalist

Against Their Will

Article excerpt

It was meant to be another competitive match for Hilaria Supa, then-leader of the Women's Federation of Anta, in the southeastern Andean highlands of Peru. Her team showed up on the field in their traditional colourful polleras - multi-layered embroidered skirts - to play, Supa assumed, their usual fast and explosive game.

But something was wrong.

'The women didn't want to play football that day,' recalls Supa, now a member of Congress, in her office in downtown Lima almost 18 years later. 'That had never happened before. Those women loved the game!'

There was a good explanation, she would soon learn, for their unusual conduct.

'We don't have the strength to play,' the goalie told Supa. 'After what they did to our stomachs at the health post, we can hardly walk. Our entire bodies ache.'

As it turned out, the women's fallopian tubes had been cut without their knowledge or consent.

What happened to the women of Anta was not an isolated case. In the 1990s, during a 10-year reign, President Alberto Fujimori set in motion a family-planning programme that resulted in the forced sterilization of more than 300,000 women. The vast majority of them were indigenous, impoverished and illiterate, living in remote rural communities with precarious infrastructure and services.

Threats and lies

In Chuschi, about 300 kilometres west of Anta, where communist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerrillas began their grisly war against the Peruvian state in the early 1980s, everyone was suspected of being either a terrorist or a collaborator. The army hunted down and executed locals, mistaking them for guerrillas. The guerrillas hunted down and murdered anyone perceived to be collaborating with the armed forces. Rivers of blood ran through the district for more than 15 years.

But the tragic fate of the people of Chuschi did not end there.

From around 1996, teams of nurses and medical practitioners arrived in search of women of childbearing age. They went from village to village, house to house. One sunlit morning, they knocked on Juana's* door.

'They came offering free medical services. So I told them about my stomach aches,' Juana recounts in her native Quechua. '"You have a tumour," a doctor told me at once. "You'll have to go to the Cangallo health post to have it removed. You don't have to pay for the operation." But I didn't have a tumour. I came back, along with 20 other women, taking baby steps all the way home. We couldn't walk well. We were half dead.'

'When the doctor came to my house,' says Dolores*, 'my husband was drunk. Even so, the doctor had him sign an authorization form. I didn't know what was going on. The doctor said to me: "Don't worry, the government will pay... The operation will get rid of all your ailments." He lied. I ended up ligada - with my tubes tied.'

In Sorochuco, Matilde* hand-spins wool into yarn, lost in her memories.

'My children were malnourished. A nurse came to offer me food supplies if I agreed not to have any more children,' she recalls. 'She took me to the health post... I didn't really understand what was done to me there... Nobody explained it to me. As a poor mother of four, I was desperate to feed my children.'

In La Encañada, Mamérita Mestanza gave in to pressure from staffat her local health centre to agree to the sterilization procedure, following threats that she would be turned in to the police. Eight days after the operation, on 5 April 1998, she died as a result of an untreated post-operative infection. Hers was the first case to be investigated, and was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on 5 June 1999. In 2001, the IACHR reached a friendly settlement with the Peruvian State under which it promised to compensate Mamérita's family, investigate fully the case of forced sterilizations, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

María* is sitting on the muddy ground in the foothills of the tiny Andean village of Acobamba as she relates the story of her aunt. …

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