Guillermina Huaman, 42, struggles to find the words in Spanish to express her grief and rage. It is in her mother tongue, Quechua, a language widely spoken in Peru’s southern highlands, that she explains how public healthcare medics terminated her pregnancy at three months during what she thought was a routine checkup.
She remembers being anesthetized after being told she was to be given vitamins intravenously. When she awoke she saw that her abdomen had been cut and stitched. She had been sterilixed and her fetus aborted.
“They told me I wasn’t pregnant, but I knew that I was,” she sobbed.
Hers is one of many accounts of coercion in the forced sterilization of 2,074 poor, rural women, many illiterate and who spoke little Spanish, between 1995 and 2000.
The women have been fighting for some sort of justice and compensation for years.
Their legal case began in 2003, when the state paid compensation to the family of Mamerita Mestanza, who died during a surgical sterilization in 1998. In 2004, the Peruvian state pledged before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to investigate and sanction those responsible for the sterilization campaign. Legal proceedings were opened, but then shelved in 2009 only to be reopened in 2011.
However, in January a judicial investigation was closed after a prosecutor, Marco Guzman, said he found no evidence that women were systematically coerced into sterilization. Lawyers are appealing the decision on the grounds that sufficient evidence of human rights abuses exists. Campaigners say they have succeeded in ensuring that a senior prosecutor would re-examine the case.
Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori, who was in office between 1990 and 2000, is serving a 25-year sentence for authorizing death squad killings and corruption. Both he and one of the investigated health ministers, Alejandro Aguinaga, now a congressman for his political party, maintain the sterilizations were consensual.
“You can’t force someone into the operating room. This was a reproductive health program with backing from international institutions,” Aguinaga said.
In 1995, the Peruvian government legalized surgical sterilization. The “voluntary surgical contraception” (VSC) program began as part of a poverty reduction campaign.
Fujimori wanted to reduce the birthrate from an average of more than 3.7 births a woman in 1995. According to World Bank figures, the birthrate stood at 2.5 by 2011.
The US agency for international development, USAid, gave US$25 million over five years to women’s rights non-governmental organization Manuela Ramos to implement ReproSalud, a family planning program that included VSC, but when evidence of the forced sterilizations emerged in 1998, in an investigation by other women’s groups called Nada Personal, Manuela Ramos joined Peru’s human rights ombudsman in reporting the abuses.
In 1998, Joseph Rees, an adviser to the US House of Representatives Sub-committee for International Operations and Human Rights, said the US should stop all funding for family planning programs until it was clear the “sterilization goals and related abuses” would be discontinued.
In a 2004 document, USAid says it “denied funding and support to the VSC campaign and took proactive steps towards promoting changes” in the Peruvian government’s strategy, adding that it “separated assistance to ensure no support went to campaigns.”