Changing the public narrative: The case of forced sterilizations in Peru
In a drive for lower birth rates during the mid-90’s, Peruvian authorities launched a campaign to persuade women to get sterilized. More than 200 000 women underwent the surgical procedure over the next few years. But not all of them knew or had agreed to be sterilized. A team of researchers involving staff from CMI became instrumental in providing justice for the victims of this forced sterilization.
When 33 year old Mamerita Mestanza went to the local health clinic, she started getting comments from the staff. She had seven children. You could be jailed for having more then five, they told her, and suggested that she should consider sterilization. She succumbed to the pressure and underwent the surgical procedure. Eight days later, she died from post-surgery complications and seven children had to grow up without their mother.
What was the problem?
In Peru in the mid-90’s, 200 000 women were sterilized. Many of them, especially poor, marginalized women with an indigenous background were tricked or forced into the medical procedure. After the scandal became public, the responsible authorities promised justice and reparation, but nothing happened. In 2017, a new book on the forced sterilizations became crucial in strengthening the by then public narrative that there had been no wrongdoing.
What did we do?
We collected data and interviewed victims of the forced sterilizations and their supporters. We analyzed the extent of the scandal and challenged the public narrative.
In 2018, the attorney general decided to go forward and open a case against former president Fujimori for his sterilization policy. The researchers’ documentation and analysis of the case was used as evidence. The researchers’ work empowered the victims of the forced sterilizations.
Mamerita Mestanza did not want the sterilization. She was a victim of a public originating at the very top of the Peruvian authorities. In a drive to decrease poverty, former president Fujimori and his government designed and implemented a plan offering sterilization as a contraceptive method. Lowering the birth rate was an initiative to reduce poverty, they claimed. The policy was cheered as a success in public. Behind closed doors, a different story was unfolding.
In poor parts of the country, rumours of incidents where marginalized women from the indigenous Quechua-speaking population were loaded on to trucks and taken to local health clinics and forced sterilized, were soon starting to spread.
Mestanza became a symbol of the plight of the indigenous peoples in Peru. The majority of the women who were sterilized belonged to the poor, marginalized Quechua-speaking population. As stories of forced sterilizations started reaching the public, little happened. The victims were struggling to be heard. There was no reparation, no justice. Instead the victims had to counter a public narrative that conveyed the sterilization policy as a success because as intended it drove the birth rates down. The repressive aspects, the force and the gross human rights violation it represented towards thousands of defenseless women were left out of the public narrative.
An increasingly politicized field
Activists working for reparations and justice for the victims brought the case of Mamerita Mestanza to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The trial encouraged many others who had been forcibly sterilized to step forward. The case also caught the attention of a team of researchers working on sexual and reproductive rights, and on how legal strategies are used as a tool for advancing human rights. One of these researchers was Camila Gianella, researcher at CMI and global fellow at the joint CMI/UiB Centre on Law and Social Transformation.
She has studied the contested field of sexual and reproductive rights for Latin-American women for almost a decade, actively participating in and contributing to public debates. She and her colleagues have delved into what has come to be an increasingly politicized arena for political-moral battles, namely domestic and international courts, how this arena is being used by individuals and groups to fight for or against rights, and how the courts respond by furthering but also sometimes limiting rights.
As was the case with forced sterilizations in Peru, at the core of these political-moral battles is often the faith of women, their bodies being a battleground for politicians trying to gain the support of more voters.
The faith of women are often at the core of political-moral battles.
Sharing knowledge and networks
More than 200 000 Peruvian women, and also about 20 000 men, were sterilized from the mid-90’s and for the next five years. No one knows how many of them were sterilized against their will, but thousands of women have come forward with stories about force and oppression.
The researchers interviewed victims, members of the organizations representing the victims and NGOs, officials from the Ministry of Health and the Ombudsman, and soon became an invaluable resource for the people seeking justice.
The researchers became an invaluable resource for the people seeking justice for past wrongs.
After the case of Mamerita Mestanza reached the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Peruvian government finally took responsibility. They agreed to give up the policy, to look into the allegations of forced sterilizations, and they even settled for reparations to some of the victim’s families. Beyond that not much happened, but the door was kept open for further cases, and the organizations fighting for the victims were not ready to give up.
By now, Gianella and the team of researchers had a broad network, and their work was well-known to the organizations that were involved.
-We were approached by the organizations representing the victims and asked to provide facts contributing to a discussion that was getting nowhere mainly because of political reasons, says Gianella.
And so they did. They insisted to stick to the dividing lines between advocacy and academia, and offered facts and reports and facilitated contact between different actors. But soon the researchers felt forced to take a more active stance.
Shifting the public narrative
-Even after the knowledge of the forced sterilizations reached the public eye, former president Alberto Fujimori was not held accountable for the policies his government was responsible for. There were attempts of bringing him to court, but he was widely defended in Peruvian elite circles, says Gianella.
The turning point for her and the other researchers came in 2017, when the book La Verdad de una Mentira was published. The book was written by a woman who used to be married to one of Fujimori’s cabinet ministers, and was used to defend Fujimori and the sterilization policy.
-The book was seen as an academic contribution to the debate. And this was dangerous. Rather than being a serious contribution to the debate, it was full of unfounded arguments. The author had been cherry-picking, choosing only pieces of information that supported her version of the events. She had not talked to any of the women who had been sterilized, and based her arguments on a single report, says Gianella.
It was time to take publically refute unscientific claims about the sterilization policy and bring facts based on solid research to the table. Gianella and her colleagues started seeking out journalists who were writing about the sterilization cases and published op-eds repudiating the book’s arguments.
The researchers publically refuted unscientific claims about the sterilization policy.
Wherever and whenever they could, they presented the facts coming out of their research. These facts ultimately contributed to the change of the public narrative, to the case the Attorney General opened against Fujimori and to a sense of justice for the victims.
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