I just finished up an inspiring week speaking to women from throughout Latin America who use community radio to promote gender equality. As I spoke to women from rural areas in Latin America about communication rights, they drew the connection between their voices, reproductive rights and human rights. So why has it taken so long for reproductive rights to be treated as human rights?
Women in this region have made incredible strides in the past decade. Chile, Argentina and now soon Brazil will have seen their first women presidents take power. Women’s movements in the region have grown, and proved themselves to be a force to be reckoned with. However, as we are well into the 21st, women’s rights still aren’t fully recognized. And it is the womb of Latin America that suffers.
The news of cases of forced sterilization in Chile sends an ominous reminder of how reproductive rights in the region are regarded. The report from the Center for Reproductive rights, Dignity Denied: Violations of the Rights of HIV-Positive Women in Chilean Health Facilities details the cases of 27 HIV-positive women who were forcibly sterilized.
The idea of an HIV-positive woman giving the birth to a child may bring up issues about health and responsibility. However, the State or government agency should not hold the authority to deprive a woman of her agency and right to make decisions regarding her body. This is exactly what occurred in the case of 36-year-old Julia, a HIV-positive woman who was forcibly sterilized in Chile. Julia had considered the facts about having a child, and the risk of mother-to-child transmission was low. When she experienced health problems, she was turned away at a local hospital and verbally abused. Later on she had a miscarriage.
Francesca, another HIV-positive woman was unknowingly sterilized after a Cesarean surgery. When she woke up, she had a healthy baby boy, but had been sterilized, according to a Global Post report.
Reproductive rights organizations have brought Francesca’s case to the Inter-American Rights Commission. The court will have to decide whether the Chilean government failed to protect her from forced sterilization. Forced or coercive sterilizations of HIV-positive women have also occurred in Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, South Africa and Namibia.
These recent cases of forced sterilization send painful reminders of the legacy of forced sterilization as a form of gender violence. Forced sterilizations have occurred all over the world, most notably in minority communities. In particular, indigenous women throughout the Americas have found themselves the victim of involuntary sterilizations. The United States government has also violated human rights during a campaign in the 1970’s in which at least 3,406 Native American women were involuntarily sterilized. Unfortunately, as we are well into the 21st century, the practice continues.
Sterilization is just one way in which sexual oppression of Latina, indigenous and African women in the Americas is implemented. Throughout the region, women do not have the right to safe abortions. In many countries, sexual education has been banned from public schools. In my residing country, Argentina, clandestine abortions are the leading cause of maternal death. In Chile, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, abortion is banned under all circumstances, even when the mother’s life is at risk.
Globally, the lack of reproductive rights has also helped to stigmatize sexually transmittable HIV and AIDS. Around the world, religious groups have fought to prohibit sexual education in public schools and access to condoms. Women are hurt the most by the social stigma and shame prevalent in society. Aside from constituting a direct violation of basic rights, forced sterilization of HIV-positive women further stigmatizes the disease. And as this stigmatization deepens, women may be more reluctant to convince their sexual partners to use safer-sex methods, to get tested for HIV or seek out reproductive right health care.
Women, we need to look at our bodies as spaces where human rights must be respected. Our health, access to proper health care, and our right to make decisions regarding our own bodies should constitute human rights. In the very womb of the Americas, we mustn’t allow women’s bodies become prisons or instruments for oppression.
Marie Trigona is a writer, radio producer and blogger based in Argentina. She is a 2010 recipient of the BlogHer International Activist Scholarship. This post was originally written for Blogher.