Peru | Without Permission

The long tragedy of a campaign of forced sterilisations

Illiterate, indigenous and poor, Esperanza Huayama Aguirre is a typical victim of Peru’s mass sterilisations in the 1990s. mirko cechi
01 February, 2015

I MET ESPERANZA HUAYAMA AGUIRRE IN AUGUST, in the northern Peruvian town of Huancabamba, in the region of Piura. She was wearing a blue dress over a pair of baggy pants, with a long braid spilling out from under a white cap, and stood at under five feet tall. We spoke at a house run by the Asociación de Mujeres Trabajadoras Campesinas de Huancabamba, or AMHBA—an association of working and peasant women. Huayama is fifty-eight years old, and has a sharp, bright voice. She jumped with a teenage energy to answer the phone and greet passers-by in the street, but the wrinkles on her face betrayed her age and struggles. She chanted her story like a mantra.

“In the countryside we have no experience of what our rights are,” she said. “When they came to do the ligadura, as we call it, they told us, ‘Come! We will give you medicines, foods.’ Doctors came from Lima. I already had my seven children. Then we entered the operating room and I saw the other ladies crying and complaining. They closed the door, and we could not leave. They took my blood tests and I said, ‘Doctor, I haven’t gotten my period’ ... He answered me, ‘No, come.’ I went to the bed and fell asleep, but not enough. I heard them cutting me, and also him saying, ‘Damn, this woman is pregnant.’ My god, I did not want to lose the child.”

Huayama, a peasant from the village of Rodeopampa, about three hours drive from Huancabamba, was forcibly sterilised that day, in 1996. She is just one of thousands of people coerced or persuaded into sterilisation by the Peruvian state. “Leave me my baby,” she recalled telling the doctor, “I prefer to die with him.” She continued to carry her baby, a son, until she went into labour, but he was stillborn. Had he lived, he would now have been nineteen years old.

According to the country’s ministry of health, the government carried out 215,227 tubectomies and 16,547 vasectomies during the second term of president Alberto Fujimori, between 1996 and 2000. The country’s human rights ombudsman found that almost 200,000 women were sterilised in 1996 and 1997 alone. The surgeries were part of a government plan for reproductive health and family planning, which Fujimori presented at the Fourth World Conference on Woman in Beijing in 1995. In practice, the programme was targeted primarily at indigenous women from Andean and Amazonian communities, which are some of Peru’s poorest. The country joined a host of others across the world, including India, in adopting coercive sterilisation programmes in the name of population control and poverty reduction in the last few decades of the twentieth century. Although exactly how many of the sterilisations were forced is not known, over two thousand official complaints have been filed to date, and their number continues to rise.

Nada Personal, a report published in 1999 after a meticulous independent investigation by the activist Giulia Tamayo, concludes that most operations violated fundamental human rights; they were often performed on women under psychological stress—sometimes while they were pregnant—without their informed consent, and with the promise of something in return, such as food or future medical care. Health workers were expected to meet sterilisation quotas set by the government, and were further encouraged with incentives. But today, fifteen years after the programme ended and despite numerous campaigns and investigations, no perpetrators have been punished, and those affected have received no official apology or meaningful redress. The victims are still waiting for justice, frustrated in the face of poverty and continued government indifference.

Earlier, in July, I met Victoria Vigo, a spokesperson for Demus, a woman’s rights organisation based in Lima that, alongside its other work, lends support to sterilised women. Vigo is originally from Piura’s regional capital, where she used to run her own construction company. She was sterilised there in 1996. Educated and independent, she does not fit the profile of most victims of the sterilisations, who, like Huayama, were indigenous peasants, mothers of many children, illiterate and marginalised. “They made a ‘mistake’ with me,” she told me in a small meeting room in the Demus office.

In August 1996, pregnant and feeling ill, Vigo went to get checked up at a government hospital, and was admitted there. Anxious to meet their quotas, she said, the staff “only took a quick look at my medical chart. They saw that I had lived in a rural area, and for them it meant that I was a campesina, without voice or rights. They cut my fallopian tubes when I gave birth. They told me that my baby was dead only the next day. They bandaged my chest to not let the milk out and they discharged me.” Once she understood what had been done to her, Vigo hired a lawyer, and obtained compensation of $2,500. “It’s nothing compared to the pain I suffered,” she said. “And in any case, I want that justice is done for all, not just for people like me,” who have a better chance of making themselves heard.

That struggle continues. In 2003, at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or IACHR, the Peruvian government settled the case of a woman, Mamérita Mestanza, who died eight days after a tubectomy in 1998. The government recognised its role in forced sterilisations, pledged compensation for Mestanza’s family, and promised the investigation and prosecution of responsible officials. A larger case, based on the complaints of 2,074 women and accusing three former health ministers of complicity, began in 2009, but was suspended the same year. Demus filed a petition against the suspension at the IACHR in 2010, and proceedings resumed again in 2011. In December 2013, Marco Guzman Baca, the prosecutor assigned to the case, named Fujimori among the accused for the first time. (Fujimori is currently serving a twenty-five-year sentence for unrelated human rights abuses and corruption.) But only a month later, and to great consternation, he dropped the charges, citing insufficient evidence. Suspicions of wrongdoing were only aroused further when Guzman was promoted shortly afterwards.

Mariel Távara, a Demus official, told me the organisation has appealed for help to the United Nations and the IACHR, “the only ones that until now have listened to us.” The Peruvian government has told the IAHCR that the matter is being reviewed by a senior prosecutor, but campaigners remain skeptical of the government’s commitment to the victims. Távara said the present administration, headed by a former army officer who led a failed military uprising against Fujimori in 2000, sees the case “only as an issue against the Fujimorist party”—Fuerza Popular, a conservative opposition grouping led by the former president’s daughter Keiko.

Some victims were abandoned by their spouses after sterilisation, and say that the operations destroyed their families. Huayama’s husband stayed with her, but she has other problems. Like many victims, she complains of pain and disabilities resulting from the surgery. Her belly is swollen, and does not allow her to work in the fields as before. To survive, she sells fruits and vegetables at a market, and looks after the AMHBA house, where she helps raise a small herd of rabbits and guinea pigs. Since she moved to Huancabamba from her village a few years ago, she has learned to read and write, and now organises other victims to speak up for justice.

Torivio Ramirez Aguirre, one of only a few sterilised men I could get to speak openly, also told me of complications, which he blamed on his vasectomy in 1996, when he was twenty-three years old. “Every day my health gets worse, my kidneys hurt,” he told me at the AMHBA house. He added that “the same thing happens to my cousin,” who was also sterilised. “They came and took us to Piura. It was a long journey. We were seven men from the province of Huancabamba.” The men were told they would be operated on to prevent them from having children, but that the effect would be temporary. “They deceived us.” Ramirez and his wife have a single child, a daughter born before the surgery, who he said lives in Lima and is now engaged. He would have liked to have more children. “Here in the fields what we need is a big family,” he explained, “to work and to support us when we grow old.”

I joined Huayama on a visit to Vilelapampa village, a forty-minute drive from Huancabamba over a mountain that locals say has the face of a devil and looks like a bull at night. There I met Martha Angelica Peña and Clarisa Gertrudis Yarauanca, two friends of Huayama’s who have given up on the fight. “We continue to remember and talk about what they did to us, but what for?” Peña said. Her husband recently died, and Yarauanca’s is sick. Their fields are dry, and this year did not yield enough for them to even feed themselves.

Peña gave birth to seven children, but only four still survive. Of them, three have left in search of work. Her youngest child, fifteen-year-old Nancy, is the only one left. Mother and daughter live together in a one-room stone house with a thatched roof, illuminated by a single, dim bulb. The teenager listened silently as Huayama explained a new idea to her friends: a women’s cooperative to make ponchos, blankets and bags to sell at markets in small towns and in Lima.

Yarauanca’s children have all left to look for work too. When I asked her how many she had, she told me, “Eight—seven alive and one dead.” But, she added, “I’m missing four,” counting those she could not have.

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.