In Kenya, the women say, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights”

In Nairobi this week, five women wearing t-shirts walked into court. On the back, the t-shirts read: “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights.” On the front, the t-shirts read, “END FORCED AND COERCED STERILIZATION OF WOMEN LIVING WITH HIV”

The five women, all HIV positive, are suing the Kenyan government, two maternity hospitals, and two international ngo’s for engaging in forced and coerced sterilization. They join women living with HIV in Namibia who recently won a similar case, and who had an identical rallying cry. They join the women of Chhattisgarh and across India who have survived the `sterilization camps.’ They refuse to join the women who died in those camps, though they honor them. They have joined the women prisoners across California who this year finally won the end to forced sterilization of women prisoners in that state. They join women, poor and minority, in North Carolina who finally are receiving some sort of compensation for their mistreatment, to put it gently, in forced sterilization campaigns. They join women living with disabilities in Belgium who resist coerced sterilization. They join women in Peru who eighteen years after the cessation of formal forced sterilization programs still struggle for justice. They join the Aboriginal and Indigenous women and girls across the Americas and Australia who still wait for an accounting of forced sterilization program. They join these women, all of them shouting, “NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body, my women, my rights.”

One of the women, Teresia Otieno, explained, “I went in for an operation to give birth to my first child. By the time I was leaving the operation the doctor told me I had been sterilized.” According to Benta Agola, another one of the women, the medical staff misinformed her every step of the way, and then proceeded onto the sterilization: “I wasn’t involved in decisions.” One woman reports she was threatened with a cut off of baby formula milk if she didn’t go through with the tubal ligation: “The nurse said I could not continue giving birth in the future as giving birth would compromise my immunity and as a result I would die. I eventually gave in but after the procedure I have always had pain in my abdomen especially during the cold season and also cannot undertake heavy chores.” One of the women discovered she had undergone tubal ligation four years after the procedure.

The women are represented by lawyers from KELIN, a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the rights of those living with HIV, and activists from the African Gender and Media Initiative, or GEM. Two years ago, GEM released a report, Robbed of Choice: Forced and Coerced Sterilization Experiences of Women Living with HIV in Kenya. The report documented the forced sterilization of 40 women living with HIV, or WLHIV: “In many cultures including the African, motherhood is at the core of femininity and status in society. The narratives documented here illustrate how WLHIV who have undergone nonconsensual sterilization are no longer considered, women, in their respective communities as these sterilizations are permanent and irreversible in most cases. We hope that this publication will commit the government of Kenya to act by putting in place appropriate measures to prevent and respond to forced and coerced sterilization and ultimately stop torture of WLHIV in healthcare facilities.”

These five women in Kenya are part of a global movement of women challenging the global program of forced sterilization of women. It’s past time to end it. Codify and pay just compensation to survivors of forced sterilization. Establish serious global structures to enforce informed consent. Listen to the women: NON-NEGOTIABLE: my body my womb my rights!


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About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.