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  • Writer's pictureEcumenical Women

Universal Access and Human Rights: Small Words, Big Implications

By Paola Salwan, Programme Assistant for Africa, Middle East and Europe at the World YWCA and Co-Founder of the blog Café Thawra

As the world turned red and celebrated World AIDS Day 2009 yesterday around the theme « Universal Access and Human Rights », I would like to raise awareness about the plight of women living with HIV who would have liked to become mothers, only to be forced and talked out of it, or only to discover that they had been sterilized. Yes, you’ve read correctly.

Sterilized. Forced to. Or made to feel guilty about their natural desire to have children. Or without no one bothering to inform them about the already-performed sterilization.

Have I left enough space for you to ponder on the extreme barbarity of such an action? Yes? Right, let us now move to a more detailed examination of this unspeakable phenomenon.

Forced or coerced sterilisation is defined as the use of intimidation, fear, pressure duress or deception to get “consent” for the sterilisation procedure”. It is – and it goes without saying- a gross violation of a woman’s Human and Reproductive Rights. Indeed, it simply goes against Article 16(e) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), that states:

States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:

(e) The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights;”

Depending on the interpretation and the circumstances of the sterilization, such an act could also be filed as an inhuman and degrading treatment, a kind of treatment no human being should ever be put through, as stated in Article 7 of the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (CCPR). What’s that I hear? The voices of the “Yes, but the CCPR is not legally binding for non-signatories States blah-blah-blah”. People! The right to not be subjected to torture or any ill treatment is common law, meaning UNIVERSAL, meaning EVERYONE and EVERY STATE is bound to respect it. End of story.

Many HIV positive women, from Chile to Namibia, have been forced, coerced or tricked into sterilization, or simply not informed about what the doctors were doing to them. Because the judgement and prejudice surrounding HIV positive women wanting to have children is so strong, women who come to hospitals to be cared for or to give birth find themselves sterilized when they go out of the clinic. The way of doing it can be different: either health professionals make them feel guilty about having more children because of their status, arguing that their children will be HIV positive, or doctors, to keep the appearance of legality, make women sign forms in a language they don’t understand, or when they’re on their way to the labour room. Hence women signing to an agreement for their sterilization because they trusted whatever the doctors were telling them was written on the form. In many cultures, doctors are seen as semi-Gods, and people simply tend to consider their words as Gospel. Stigma and Discrimination only multiply after the sterilization, as the ability to have children is often one of the most important criteria for a woman’s status in many societies.

Use Your Holiday Spirit to Fight HIV and AIDS - Photo by Lara Zankoul

However, it is not only doctors and health professionals who are to blame for these actions. Indeed, attention has to be paid to governmental laws that validate such practices. The International Community of Women Living with HIV has filed a complaint against the government of Namibia for the forced sterilization of 15 women. The proceedings have started on October 20th 2009, and the issue of the trial will no doubt have a strong impact on the regional and global practices regarding this issue. Earlier this year, a positive Chilean woman who had been sterilized without consent went to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission to defend her rights.

Her right not to be discriminated against, her right for equality, her right to decide for herself how many children she wants to have.

Oh, and by the way, it is still important to be reminded that mother-to-child transmission (vertical transmission) of HIV is almost entirely preventable where services and medication are available. However, there is still a lot of work ahead to reach the level in developing countries where prospective positive mothers have access to treatment, and where their Human Rights are respected.

It astounds me to have to state the obvious, but People Living with HIV’s Rights are Human Rights. Do you hear that, governments? Atta boys.

Now change your laws.

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