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'We Were Thrown Out, Half Dead': The Horror of Peru's Forced Sterilizations

May 30 2016 2:00 PM
'We Were Thrown Out, Half Dead': The Horror of Peru's Forced Sterilizations

Illustration by Marie Isabelle Marbella

In the 90s, hundreds of thousands of Peruvian women were forcibly sterilized as part of a government operation. Over a decade on, the Quipu Project is helping to gather the horrifying testimonies of the victims.

High in the Peruvian Andes a woman holds a mobile phone to her ear as she tells her story. "They came to our homes. They came in by force and this time they wouldn't let us go. They herded us out of our houses like cows."

She speaks in Quechua, one of Peru's indigenous languages, her voice rising as she describes how she was forced into a van with 30 other women, transported to a small ill-equipped clinic and sterilized against her will.

"They took us and crammed us all in. We had to stand up all the way. When we got there only the first ones that went in had a bed. The others were on the floor. They made us lie down on the floor without anything. At around four in the afternoon some of us came round, others did not. Some were silent. We were thrown out, half dead."

Her ordeal didn't end there. She has suffered from pain and poor health ever since, leaving her unable to work and with little to support herself.

"They told us 'You'll get everything. You'll get whatever you need for free,'" she said. "That's what they told us. Now we have nothing. They abandoned us like dogs."

Between 1996 and 2000 over 270,000 women and 22,000 men were sterilized as part of a controversial family planning programme implemented by then-president Alberto Fujimori.

At least 18 women are known to have died as a direct result of the procedure. Thousands more have endured lifelong health complications as a result of botched operations and unsanitary conditions. But for over a decade nobody knew the ruthless means by which they had been threatened, tricked, bribed or forced into undergoing the operations.

A new telephone line called The Quipu Project allows people to call and leave a message describing their experience.

Victoria Vigo was 30 years old and 36 weeks pregnant when she was sterilized. She was taken into surgery for an emergency C-section during which the doctors secretly performed a tubal ligation. The next day Vigo heard that her baby boy had died moments after birth. In the midst of her grief she asked to go home. She never imagined there could be more bad news.

Two Quecha women share a phone as they listen to the testimonies on the Quipu Project. All photos courtesy of the Quipu Project

"The day after my surgery I felt very sore," she said.

"I had a C-section but this time the pain felt deeper. I asked the practitioner to discharge me because I was feeling very distressed for the loss I suffered. The doctor said no, that my evaluation wasn't alright and that I had recently had surgery so I had to wait. So I told him that I had lost my son. The doctor tried to cheer me up saying that I was young and that I could still have another baby. Then the intern that was next to him told him no, that I no longer could because I was sterilized."

Incredibly, the hospital had tried to hide the procedure from Vigo and it was only her persistence that led to a confirmation of what had happened.

"When the doctor checked the medical history the word 'sterilization' didn't appear," she said. "In the afternoon, I called one of the interns who could show me my records. They told me 'sterilization' wasn't marked but, a line further on in red they had written 'AQV' which was the acronym for 'Voluntary Sterilization.'"

With the help from a friend, she contacted an insurance company who said they could help her have the procedure reversed but after undergoing tests, she realized it would be impossible.

"My fallopian tubes were indeed cut, they were mutilated," she said.

"My child was dead and at the same time to find out I had been sterilized and that I could never be a mother again. The impotence I felt and the pain in my heart knowing that somebody else had chosen for me—somebody had already taken a decision in my name."

Vigo, now 50, successfully sued the doctor who operated on her and received £2,500 compensation but she is one of the few to take legal action.

A group of survivors.

Quipu Project creator and director Rosemarie Lerner grew up in the capital Lima and explained that even 20 years on survivors still fear the repercussions of speaking out.

"They are afraid they won't get work," she said. "Some of them who have given their names right now are receiving suspicious threats, such as calls saying 'I'm going to wait for you to meet you,' or 'You will shut up and not speak again.' We don't know the risks or what will happen."

The sterilizations took place as part of a USAID-funded government drive to reduce poverty by reducing population growth. The theory was that families were having more children than they could support and needed help in controlling that.

Sterilization had formerly been illegal in the largely Catholic country, but Fujimori modified the General Population Law in order to offer it as a "voluntary" method of birth control.

However, investigations led by the Latin American Committee on Women's Rights (CLADEM) in 1999 revealed that in reality only around 10 percent of those affected had actually given consent. Furthermore, they discovered clinics had been given incentives to achieve their sterilization targets, and threatened with redundancy if they failed.

In October 2014 Peruvian newspaper La Republica spoke to former doctors who confirmed that in 1997 they and their colleagues were ordered to perform sterilization surgery on sixty women a day in "inhumane" conditions.

Pictoral instructions help illiterate women understand how to give testimony on their phone.

Many of the sterilized women believe they were targeted because they were poor and uneducated—people the government assumed would not be able to fight back.

Sixty-year-old Esperanza Huyama Aguirre is unequivocal on the subject. She lost her baby after being sterilized at three months pregnant and said the authorities were assumed she would have no recourse.

"They did this to us, peasant women, because we were illiterate," she said. "They did as they pleased."

One of the first to campaign for justice over the sterilization programme was lawyer and human rights activist Giulia Tamayo, who was part of the team that investigated the death of Maria Mamérita Mestanza, a woman who died following a sterilization procedure in 1998. Tamayo eventually brought the first ever case against the Peruvian government in 2001.

Tamayo received regular threats both from those linked to the government and from the communist terror group Shining Path, who were operating in the country at that time. She was shot in the leg and exiled to Spain shortly after the case was settled. She eventually returned to South America and died in Uruguay in 2014.

It was during her time in Madrid that Lerner and her co-director Maria Court met with her to discuss their ideas for a new project.

"She knew women wanted to fight and tell their stories but they didn't have a platform," said Lerner.

"The issue was always talked about by other people and it was always mediated. There was barely anything where we could listen directly to the indigenous women's voices. So instead of making a traditional film, I wanted to do something more interactive."

A survivor stands in front of posters advertising the Quipu Project.

They came up with the idea of a phone line. Once recorded, the testimonies are uploaded with English subtitles onto an online interactive documentary where anyone can go and listen to them. Callers can also dial in to listen to other stories left by survivors from across the country.

"Telephone is the only medium, other than radio, that they're familiar with and have access to," explained Lerner.

"And although a lot of them speak Spanish we noticed that often when they got to an emotional part of the story and broke down they would switch to Quechua so we felt it was really important to let them speak in their own language. Many are illiterate, if not most, but they have a really rich oral tradition so even though they are uneducated, they are good at telling stories."

It is these stories, collected by the Quipu Project in conjunction with local organisations El Instituto de Apoyo al Movimiento Autónomo de Mujeres Campesinas (IAMAC-AMBHA) in the northern town of Huancabamba, and Cusco's branch of the Asociación de Mujeres Afectadas por Esterilizaciones Forzadas (AMAEF), that have helped reignite the crusade for justice.

In April, hundreds of young Peruvian women marched on the Plaza de San Martín in the capital city of Lima.

With the former president Fujimori's daughter Keiko currently the frontrunner in the country's 2016 presidential elections, protesters paraded through the streets with red paint smeared down their legs, a powerful reference to the violations that took place under her father's regime.

Fujimori himself was jailed for 25 years in 2009 for directing death squads, embezzlement, and bribing the media. But the Peruvian government have yet to be held to account for the forced sterilizations.

"One of the goals of the project is to inspire other people who haven't spoken yet, to do so," said Lerner. "Not only so they can hear each other's stories but to let them know there's a movement and a legal case and to strengthen their fight."

Victoria agrees. "There are many women that speak Quechua that haven't had the chance to defend themselves," she said.

"But we are here standing on our feet, we are all one voice."

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