Johannesburg - A group of HIV-positive women, who were coerced or forced into being sterilised, are seeking redress for what happened to them and are asking that the law be changed to stop the discrimination.
Her Rights Initiative (HRI) and Oxfam lodged a formal complaint on Wednesday with the South African Commission on Gender Equality regarding the sterilisations.
The organisations have 48 stories from women in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng who have detailed how they were sterilised while in labour or during caesarean sections.
Dr Ann Strode from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who wrote a study published in 2012, said they believed initially the practice had taken place before 2006 and the national rollout of antiretrovirals.
But, as more women came forward, they realised the sterilisations were still happening.
They have two cases of coerced sterilisation last year – one in KwaZulu-Natal and the other in Gauteng, where a civil action case was brought against the Department of Health.
On the eve of the case going to court this month, the department settled the matter, accepting responsibility for what had happened.
Sithembiso Mthembu of HRI said the cases showed that public hospitals in KwaZulu-Natal and two private hospitals had done the procedures. In Gauteng, they had found one hospital, in particular, where the practice was prevalent.
Sixolile Ngcobo from Oxfam said the organisation had first tried to engage with the Department of Health on the issue.
However, talks had stalled when the department insisted the sterilisation of HIV-positive women was not policy and it did not want to talk about redress and compensation.
Strode said they had found in their study that 37 women had been coerced into signing consent forms, not really knowing what it was they were signing.
In the other cases, women had been sterilised without their knowledge.
She said the women were in advanced labour when given the forms. They were in a lot of pain and believed that if they did not sign, their births would be unassisted.
In one case, a woman collapsed in a toilet, and that is when forms were brought to her to sign.
The youngest woman was 19 and the average age was 28 when the procedure was done, Strode said.
On average, the women had few children and some had lost the only child they had.
“The stereotype is that HIV-positive women shouldn’t bring children into the world that might be HIV-positive or that will be left as orphans,” she said.
The women said the stigma of being sterilised was worse than being HIV-positive. Many have not told their family or partners what had happened to them.
The organisations said they did not believe there were only 48 women who had been sterilised.
“We are certain there are far more. They don’t know who to speak to, and we only did this research in two provinces,” said Mthembu.
She said she believed there must be a silent policy inside the corridors of healthcare facilities where the consent forms were readily available and where funding for the procedures was available.
Health Department spokesman Joe Maila said forced sterilisation was not policy and it was not true they were not engaging with Oxfam and HRI.
He said the department had asked for concrete evidence and this was yet to be given to them.
“However, we deployed people to Addington Hospital to gather evidence as alleged, but no evidence was found,” Maila said.
‘I died the day they did this’
A woman, who did not want to be named, found out in 2010 she had cancer.
“I had a baby in 1996, who passed away in 2001. Because of the cancer, they took away my womb. Afterwards, the doctor asked me why my tubes had been cut. I had no idea this had been done to me.
“They did it to me without me knowing. They killed me while I was still alive. I don’t have a child. I know I will never have a child.
“My child was a New Year’s baby, a special baby. What they did to me was wrong, but I don’t hate anybody. What I want is for other women to know, to not let this happen to them.
“You find that you lie to your man. You say you have missed your period and then three months later, say you had a miscarriage because you want this relationship to last.
If they don’t know the truth, they will stay. If they find out you have HIV and you can’t have a baby, there can be no lobolo. They say you are a useless woman. But I know I am not useless.I am black and I am beautiful and I am someone who has lived with HIV for 19 years.
Another woman said:”In labour I was given a form to sign. After the C-section, I heard a doctor speaking to another doctor and she was saying she did not understand why they had just sterilised a 19-year-old just because she was HIV-positive.”