More than a dozen HIV-positive Durban women are suing the provincial health department after they allege they were “forcibly” sterilised.
An HIV-positive Gauteng woman recently won her case against that province’s health department and was awarded close to R500 000.
On Friday, four of the 12 women spoke out about their “traumatic” and “life-changing” ordeal.
“I felt violated when I found out that they had sterilised me without my consent,” said a 26-year-old woman who found out three years ago that her tubes had been tied when she gave birth to her second child in 2007.
The woman said she was 19 when she heard doctors at Prince Mshiyeni Memorial Hospital in Umlazi complaining about HIV-positive women who continued to fall pregnant.
The next thing she knew, the doctor was standing next to her with a pen and paper asking her to sign sterilisation forms.
“I didn’t even understand what the word meant,” she said.
None of the medical staff explained what she was signing.
“I only found out in late 2010 when my partner and I were trying for another baby that my tubes had been tied,” she said.
The woman is one of many KZN women who have broken their silence after they were allegedly “tricked” or “forced” into sterilisation.
A 45-year-old woman from KwaMakhutha was pregnant with her first child when doctors allegedly sterilised her without her consent. Because she was not given ARV treatment, her only child died five years later.
“Knowing that my only child had died and that I could never have any children was unbearable,” she said. She is still taking anti-depressants.
However, health spokesman Desmond Motha said there was no prevalent attitude among doctors working in KZN that HIV-positive woman should be sterilised. There was also no incentive for doctors to coerce women to have a sterilisation, he said.
“Also, there has never been a Department of Health policy that HIV-positive women should be sterilised,” he said.
Motha said the department’s legal division did not have any record of anybody who had instituted medico-legal claims relating to sterilisation. Before carrying out sterilisation, the doctor must be convinced that the woman was an appropriate candidate. The woman needed to undergo counselling about the benefits and disadvantages, and understand that the method was non-reversible.
“The informed consent must be conducted in a language the woman can understand, and must be witnessed by at least one other health worker.”
These are procedures that the women claim weren’t followed.
They are now seeking to pursue legal action against the department with the assistance of Her Right Initiative, a social impact organisation that advocates for the sexual and reproductive rights of women, especially those who are living with HIV and Aids.
Sethembiso Mthembu, from HRI, said the organisation believed coerced sterilisation was a form of medicalised violence against HIV-positive women.
“We call on the Department of Health to ensure that all health-care workers are properly trained and supported to comply with the Sterilisation Act in a way that upholds the rights of HIV-positive women and all clients,” she said.
She said HRI, Figo (International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics) and Women’s Legal Centre (WLC) assisted the victims of forced sterilisations by facilitating court cases against the State, and providing informative support and counselling.
The collaboration recently saw an HIV-positive Gauteng woman win a case against that province’s health department. The 28-year-old woman approached the high court claiming that the department had violated her rights to bodily integrity as it had sterilised her without her express consent during an elective Caesarean section in 2009. She was asked to sign several forms without knowing that she was also agreeing to be sterilised. The department subsequently agreed to pay damages close to half a million rand.
Mthembu said they were working closely with their legal advisors in KZN and were hoping to achieve the same success with the local department.
“Some women found the stigma of being unable to have children worse than the stigma of living with HIV and Aids, so they have told no one,” said Mthembu.
“Others only realised what had happened to them… after years of trying to have a child.”