By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (TrustLaw) – Peru’s attorney general has reopened an inquiry into allegations that hundreds of thousands of women were forcibly sterilised under the government of disgraced former leader Alberto Fujimori, human rights groups say.
While in power, Fujimori, who ruled Peru with an iron fist in the 1990s, defended his drive for free sterilisation and other birth control methods as crucial to eliminating poverty in the south American country. He has in the past said he is not guilty of wrongdoing in his government’s 1996-2000 family planning scheme.
Rights activists say the practice was official state policy, and a crime against humanity. More than 2,000 women, the majority of them poor and living in rural areas, have provided testimonies to local and international rights groups saying they were forcibly sterilised in the late 1990s.
APRODEH, Peru’s leading human rights organisation, said prosecutors revived the case last month after it found merit in the recent ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which concluded that a case it took up of forced sterilisations in Peru constituted a crime against humanity.
Rights groups say some 300,000 women underwent forced sterilisation during the presidency of Fujimori, who is now serving a 25-year-jail sentence for human rights abuses.
“This was part of a state policy during the Fujimori government to reduce the birth rate among poor women, who were on average aged between 25 to 34 years,” Francisco Soberon, head of APRODEH told TrustLaw in a phone interview from Lima.
“Instead of providing women with other methods of family planning, like birth control pills, Fujimori promoted surgical and definitive methods. Health officials gave women no other options, no alternatives, they pressured and threatened them into having the operation,” Soberon said.
“FESTIVAL OF TUBAL LIGATION”
Health officials working during the Fujimori administration have said women signed consent forms. But some women were deceived, activists say.
“We know of several cases where women underwent operations which they thought were for something else, when in fact they were getting their tubes tied,” Soberon said.
Rights group Amnesty International says the government policy not only violated human and reproductive rights but was racist, because it mostly targeted indigenous Quechua speakers, from Peru’s Andean and Amazonian regions, particularly in the Cusco area.
“His government’s policy of demographic control specifically targeted Indigenous and peasant women from the most deprived sectors of society,” the rights group said in recent statement.
From 1996 to 2000, health officials descended on rural villages across Peru to carry out mass sterilisations as part of a public health campaign known as the “Festival of tubal ligation” – which refers to a surgery that blocks the tubes between a woman’s ovaries and her uterus, preventing her from becoming pregnant.
Local health authorities and hospitals received government-set quotas on the number of sterilisations they had to carry out.
“Government health entities had targets they had to reach, so they ended up coercing women, and in some cases men, to get sterilised,” Soberon said.
Rights group estimate that at least 30 women died as a result of forced sterilisations, often because there was no post-operative care on offer.
The issue gained international prominence after the death of María Mestanza in 1996, a 33-year-old mother of seven, who died from complications after undergoing forced sterilisation in northern Peru.
Mestanza’s family took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, supported by a testimony saying that health workers had threatened to fine her and imprison her if she did not sign the consent form.
It led to a landmark decision in 2003 when the Peruvian government agreed to pay more than $100,000 in compensation to Mestanza’s family because of state negligence.
In 2009, Peru’s chief prosecutor’s office ruled that the Mestanza case, along with some 2,000 other registered cases of forced sterilisation did not constitute a severe violation of human rights. Consequently, the cases were then shelved under the statute of limitations.
The issue of forced sterilisations came under the spotlight again this year when the left-leaning president, Ollanta Humala, made the sterilisation cases an election campaign issue before defeating Fujimori’s daughter, Keiko, in a June runoff for the presidency.
The reopening of the investigation has been welcomed by Peru’s minister of women’s development and other local lawmakers. Aida Garcia, Peru’s women´s minister told local radio RPP Noticias the cases of forced sterilisation under Fujimori constituted crimes against humanity, which “can neither be shelved nor are imprescriptible.”
Rights groups hope it will pave the way for thousands of victims hoping to receive compensation from the government.
“It’s very important that the Peruvian government has now decided to treat these cases as crimes against humanity,” Soberon said.
“It’s an opportunity to clarify lots of facts that were never established, and punish those responsible who carried out this policy at the highest levels. Women’s human rights were violated and they all deserve financial compensation.”