In Namibia, a victory for HIV-positive women, for all women, everywhere

 

Pushed by women’s organizations, by women organizing, courts and legislatures around the world are forcing the end to coerced sterilization of women. A little over a month ago, the California legislature finally outlawed the forced sterilization of women prisoners. This month, Namibia’s Supreme Court upheld a 2012 High Court ruling that health workers sterilized HIV-positive women without their consent. As Michel Sidibé, UNAIDS Executive Director, noted, “This is a great victory for all women in Namibia and the world. This decision reinforces the right to sexual and reproductive health for all women, irrespective of their HIV status.”

This latest chapter began, formally, in 2009, when three Namibian women sued the State. They claimed they had been forcibly sterilized and that they had been sterilized because they were HIV positive, and so were victims of discrimination. Three separate women, ranging in age from 20s to 40s, at the height of labor, were presented with the sterilization `option’. In one case, the woman had been in labor for over four days and was in severe pain. She was led to believe that her caesarean could only take place if she signed the form. In such circumstances, what is the gender of informed consent?

In 2012, Judge Elton Hoff took two hours to read the decision. He argued there was clearly no informed consent. He noted that the women were Oshiwambo-speaking and that none of the health staff spoke Oshiwambo. He further noted that the forms the women signed were filled with acronyms no one, other than a specialist, could be expected to understand. In all three cases, the women only discovered the meaning of “BTL”, bilateral tubal ligation, long after they had undergone the surgery. Judge Hoff concluded, “There could not have been counselling in those circumstances.” When, after two hours, Judge Hoff looked up from his papers, he faced a courtroom packed with women in black t-shirts that read, “Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights”.

The three women are members of the Namibian Women’s Health Network. During a routine inspection of post-treatment papers, Network members started noticing BTL on members’ treatment cards. No one knew what BTL was, and absolutely no woman knew that this had happened to her. The women then hooked up with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and in particular with Priti Patel, then deputy director and HIV program manager, who managed the case.

According to Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, Director of the Namibian Women’s Health Network, “The three women at the heart of this case are just the tip of the iceberg. We have documented dozens of similar cases of women living with HIV being sterilised without their informed consent. This judgment presents the strongest possibility that the Government of Namibia will be held to account for subjecting HIV-positive women to coerced sterilisation,” said Mallet.

Priti Patel added, “Monday’s decision will have far-reaching consequences not only for the three women at the heart of this case, but for the dozens of other HIV-positive women who have been subjected to coerced sterilisation in Namibia and throughout southern Africa.”

This victory in the Namibian Supreme Court extends beyond hospitals and prison and before human rights to women everywhere organizing to sustain their dignity as women, and in so doing, pushing the State to do more than pay lip service to women’s rights and equality. This is a victory for women’s autonomy and power, everywhere. The State, and not just Namibia, did more than fail to stop forced sterilization. The State engaged for decades, and centuries, in medical pogroms against women. It’s way past time for the State to be held to account for violence committed against women across the African continent and around the world.

 

(Photo Credit: Namibian Women’s Health Network)

Haunts: Israel’s `emergency’ stalks Ethiopian women’s bodies

According to a recent report, Israel has been administering Depo-Provera to Ethiopian women without any informed consent. At present, it’s estimated that thousands of Ethiopian women are receiving regular shots. The women never consented to receiving this highly controversial treatment. Many were never told that the shots are contraceptive, and questionable contraceptives at that.

The Ethiopian women started receiving `the treatment’ in the so-called transit camps in Ethiopia. Exactly who originated the program and who runs it now, from the camps in Ethiopia to the clinics in Israel, is under investigation.

Some women say they were told, in the camps, “No shot, no Israel.” Others say they were told it’s a flu shot.

At one level, this news is not new. In 2008, a day care center director noticed a sharp decline in the numbers of Ethiopian children. She went to the nearby clinic and was informed the clinic had been “had been instructed to administer Depo Provera injections to the women of child-bearing age.” They were merely following instructions.

In 2010, the Women and Medical Technologies Project of Isha L’Isha, or Woman to Woman, released a study, “Depo Provera: A contraceptive method given via injection: A report on its prescription policy among women of the Ethiopian community in Israel.” They noted that while Ethiopian women made up 2% of the female population in Israel, of “the mentioned 4833 cases, 2759 (57%) were women of Ethiopian origin.”

The most recent `discovery’ occurred in December of last year, thanks to a documentary made by Sava Reuben, a woman of Ethiopian origin. Reuben has been in Israel since 1984. The `nation’ was shocked. Outcry ensued.

How is one to read this tale of racial, xenophobic, sexist violence against women … all under the sheltering sky of State health policy? In Namibia, South Africa and elsewhere, women have been forcibly sterilized because they were HIV-positive. In Namibia, the women took the State to court … and won: “Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights”. In India, Indira Gandhi’s government, in the mid-1970’s, launched a campaign of forced sterilization. It was `the Emergency.’

It’s always `the Emergency.’ From Namibia and South Africa to India to Israel and beyond, it’s always `the Emergency’ and women always pay. Emergency is the state of the modern State. This too is not new. In 1940, Walter Benjamin wrote: “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.” Almost sixty years later, Giorgio Agamben commented on Benjamin’s insight: “Walter Benjamin’s diagnosis … has lost none of its relevance. And that is so not really or not only because power no longer has today any form of legitimization other than emergency, and because power everywhere and continuously refers and appeals to emergency as well as laboring secretly to produce it. (How could we not think that a system that can no longer function at all except on the basis of emergency would not also be interested in preserving such an emergency at any price?)”

None of this is new.

What is the price of a permanent State of emergency? Ask the Ethiopian women in Israel. They’ll tell you.

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

Haunts: The women of Namibia say, “Rape is not NAMIBIAN”

We mean business, and we really are serious. We are just tired of being disempowered, being talked to like little children.”

In Namibia last week, Police Inspector General Sebastian Ndeitunga issued a ban on miniskirts. He warned women that too short and revealing clothes are not African. He acknowledged that in Namibia there’s something called a Constitution, but then went on to explain that “culture” trumps constitutional rights. He then warned that wearing clothes that are too revealing would lead to arrest.

The Namibia Press Agency reports that 40 women were arrested, over the festive season, for wearing “hot-pants.” The women were held in custody overnight and then released to their parents, with lectures on public indecency. As the Police Inspector explained, “I don’t want to prescribe how people should wear, even if it’s new fashion style, it should be within our tradition.”

While women have been threatened with arrest for wearing miniskirts, it has been noted that no men have been threatened with arrest for wearing sagging pants. Apparently `culture’ and `tradition’ only `protect’ women.

Not surprisingly, the women rejected the ban, and even more its political context, vociferously and boisterously. Women’s organizations filed protests. Women, and men, wrote in opposition. Women and men organized public demonstrations. Finally, the Inspector General claimed, predictably, that he had been misquoted. The actual arrests of women in hot pants can’t be brushed away quite so conveniently.

Namibian women understand “culture” and “tradition” and know that assaults on their clothing are never what they seem. Banning the miniskirt, of course, is itself a long and often violent tradition. Edith Head banned the miniskirt from the Academy Awards. (Somewhere Seth MacFarlane is singing, “We saw your knees”, and it’s still not funny.) At various times, the governments of Swaziland, Russia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo have outlawed or come close to outlawing miniskirts. In recent years, women wearing miniskirts have been attacked because of their attire in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa.

In each case, the women rose, organized, and attacked, because in each case, the women understood that the attack on their clothes was an attack on their bodies and themselves.

In the recent past, Namibian women have been organizing, working at the unfinished business of creating national and local democracy. Herero and Nama women have been organizing for the rights and realities of indigenous populations as they have organized to increase the presence and power and expand the rights of Herero and Nama women. Namibian women farmers have been organizing and developing sustainable agriculture political economies. And Namibian women, who were forcibly sterilized, without their consent, have been organizing, organizing, organizing, and gaining ground.

When Namibian women heard of the Inspector General’s remarks, they understood the context immediately: sexual violence. Namibian women know about the sexual harassment, violence and threats they often face, for example at taxi ranks, and they know it has nothing to do with their clothing. Namibian women know about rape and other forms of sexual assault, including what gets called “corrective punishment”. They know about the everydayness of date rape. They know about the often-limited access to sexual and reproductive health services, and the severe restrictions concerning abortion, and they know that lack of access and prohibition is part of a structure of violence against women. HIV-positive women know about the reproductive and sexual rights violations they suffer repeatedly, and in particular in doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals. Women know they are tired partly because all matters of contraception and family planning are left to them. They take the burden and the blame.

They know all that. They know the miniskirt is a diversion, on one hand, and serious, on the other.

And they said as much at the protest rally in Windhoek:

There is no excuse to rape a woman, no excuse, no matter what she wears.”

The women of Namibia refused to be limited to a discussion of clothing, of mini this and hot that. Instead, they put the issue forward directly and squarely. As one placard said, “Rape is not NAMIBIAN.”

Dan Moshenberg dmoshenberg@gmail.com

In Namibia, the women say, “Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights”

 

 

In 2009, three Namibian women sued the State. They claimed they had been forcibly sterilized and that they had been sterilized because they were HIV positive, and so were victims of discrimination. This week, the High Court of Namibia decided the case. Judge Elton Hoff ruled in the plaintiff’s favor in the first claim and dismissed the second, due to insufficient evidence. The case is widely viewed as a landmark case.

Three separate women, ranging in age from 20s to 40s, at the height of labor, were presented with the sterilization `option’. In one case, the woman had been in labor for over four days and was in severe pain. She was led to believe that her caesarean could only take place if she signed the form. In such circumstances, what is the gender of informed consent?

In a decision that took Judge Hoff two hours to read, the Judge said there was no informed consent. He further noted that the women were Oshiwambo-speaking and that none of the health staff spoke Oshiwambo. He also noted that the forms the women signed were filled with acronyms no one, other than a specialist, could be expected to understand. Finally, in all three cases, the women only discovered the meaning of “BTL”, bilateral tubal ligation, long after they had undergone the surgery.

As the judge said: “There could not have been counselling in those circumstances.” When Judge Hoff looked up from his papers, he saw a courtroom, packed with women in black t-shirts that read, “Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights”.

This is a story, on one side, about how women at their most vulnerable are treated. Violently. It’s equally a story about how women organize and turn men’s swords into women’s ploughshares.

The three women are members of the Namibian Women’s Health Network. During a routine inspection of post-treatment papers, Network members started noticing BTL on members’ treatment cards. When the women were asked about it, no one knew what BTL was, and absolutely no one knew that this had happened to them. The women then hooked up with the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, and in particular with Priti Patel, deputy director and HIV program manager, who managed the case.

Though mixed, the decision is a step forward, and it’s a step that women Namibian women took, as they are doing in South Africa, in Kenya, in Swaziland, in Zambia. In South Africa, for example, Promise Mthembu went through a similar torture. At 22, she discovered she was HIV positive. She went to hospital and was told she had to sign a paper and undergo sterilization if she wanted treatment. And so she signed. Now, 16 years later, she says she is `haunted’ by having signed that form.

In response, Promise Mthembu has organized, among other groups, Her Rights Initiative, HRI: “Her Rights Initiative (HRI) was formed in 2009 by a group of feminist South African women. The Initiative is building from the knowledge and experience of its founding members who all identified the gap between HIV/AIDS policies and HIV positive women’s experiences and the potential HIV positive women represent in improving existing policies or recommending new ones to ensure women living with HIV/AIDS are able to access their sexual and reproductive rights in South Africa with a potential for improvement for all women.”

Last year, HRI researchers, feminist researchers, produced `I Feel Like Half a Woman All the Time. The researchers interviewed HIV positive women in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. They found cases, and not just a few, of explicitly coerced sterilization and other cases of sterilization performed without informed consent. More to the point, they listened closely and intently to what the women were saying. It’s what feminist researchers and activists do.

Feminist South African women, feminist Namibian women, feminist African women are moving the State and the continent.  It’s non negotiable.

(Photo Credit: socialgoodmatters.tumblr.com)

Haunts: The low spark of high-heeled African women farmers

The planet of slums is fed, clothed and sheltered by continents, and oceans, of farms, many of them small farms. Many small hold farmers are women. This is the case in China. By focusing on women farmers, China, with 10% of the world’s arable land, now feeds 20% of the world’s population.

And now, according to reports, China is turning to Africa, not in a land grab but rather in skills sharing and capacity building. China “seeks to show its trading partners in Africa that feeding their populations is only possible when women are empowered.” China is pushing for land rights for women farmers and for investing in women farmers. A key problem, however, is “the low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women”.

What?

The clause concerning “low skills” is slipped in at the end of an article, but it’s actually a bombshell. The reason “Africa” is hungry is that its women are “low skilled”?

This would come as a surprise to those, such as Andrew Mushita and Carol B. Campbell, who have argued, “Most often, women are the keepers of the seeds, tucked away among the beams in the thatched roof, protected from pests by smoke from cooking fire. Others are stored in tins in another location. Villagers volunteer labour to build storage buildings for seed banks, protecting the treasure within the public trust.”

For centuries, and more, women farmers have tended to the seeds, nurtured biodiversity, sustained communities, developed new, and successful, medical treatments, and more.

Esnai Ngwira, a 57-year-old farmer in Ekwendeni, northern Malawi, would be surprised to hear she has a low skills base. Ngwira has been working with a program that builds social ecology in sustainable ways. Rather than using fertilizer, for example, Ngwira uses crop residue. She gets a better maize harvest, helps the soil, helps the earth. Esnai Ngwira is considered “a star innovator.”

Marie Johansson and Victoria Mulunga, of the Creative Entrepreneur Solutions (CES) in northern Namibia, would also be surprised. They, and the other women in their group, are fusing farming practices, gender-responsive environmentalism, and women’s market practices into a sustainable agricultural political economy. They haven’t done that by relying on a “low skill base.”

Likewise, in Kenya, Joyce Odari, an elderly subsistence farmer, was once arrested by forest guards for having cut down trees in a public preserve. She turned her imprisonment into a women’s sustainable agro-forestry operation, that now involves over 200 women in her region.

There are other stories, other women, other names. In the Gambia, women farmers are using simple store-powered dehydrators and dryers to preserve mangoes, which, as dried fruit, they sell to local schools. The mango is a key source of Vitamin A, and its season is short. By drying and distributing them the women farmers are combating blindness, providing extra nutrition in their own homes, and securing extra income.

The stories are everywhere because the women farmers, everywhere across the African continent, are doing what they do. Storing. Sharing. Experiment. Farming. Sustaining. Experimenting some more. Sharing some more.

The first problem for women farmers, on the African continent as elsewhere, is access. Access to land, access to market. Access to resources, access to decent and equal pay. Access to education and then more education. The second problem is security. Land tenure security, market access security. The third problem is autonomy. Global systems of exchange have no respect for the local “customs”, much less the biodiversity that women farmers have created over centuries through open and principled sharing.

“The low skill base of Africa’s farmers, who are mainly women” pretends to focus on women as it obscures the actual lives that women, in this instance women farmers, lead. Not women farmers’ low skill but women farmers’ access to real power haunts a world teetering on the brink of famine. That’s our world.

Dan Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com