Remembering the dark story of Peru's population control campaign

Michael Cook
December 17, 2014
Reproduced with Permission

I just stumbled across a documentary about the 300,000 women and 22,000 men forcibly or deceitfully sterilised by population control officials in the government of President Alberto Fujimori in the 1990s.

We can all learn lessons from this ghastly abuse of human rights. Earlier this year the former president, who is currently serving a 25-year jail sentence for crimes against humanity, was exonerated of blame for the sterilization program. The prosecutor said that he could find no evidence that women had been systematically coerced.

The tears of the women in the documentary suggest otherwise. A committee in the US House of Representatives heard evidence in 1998 that the Fujimori government had given doctors quotas for sterilizations. If they failed to reach their goals, then their contracts might be terminated. "Other abuses, such as lack of informed consent, pressure to consent, bonuses per woman sterilized, and trading food for consent, were probably not mandated by the central government but were the natural outcome of the mandate that the goals must be met."

Ironically, the official name for this family planning scheme was Anticoncepción Quirúrgica Voluntaria - AQV (Voluntary Surgical Contraception). Years later investigating journalists concluded that about 90 percent of indigenous women did not consent. Many of them suffered physical and emotional damage after their tubal ligations.

"The worst of it all is that one of the doctors who damaged me for life is still working in the Izcuchaca health centre," one woman told the IPS news service . "Every time I see him I feel furious, because nothing has happened to him."

This horrific story is hardly known outside of Peru. "I was working for Amnesty International in Peru in the 1990s and nobody knew this was going on," Matthew Brown, of the University of Bristol, in the UK, told Prospect magazine. "Awareness has been growing in the last three years, partly because of our project and partly because of the efforts of victims groups. These women were sterilised at 20 and now they are coming up to 45 with no one to look after them in old age. That was the community welfare safety net."

Mr Brown is involved in The Quipu Project , an interactive documentary the sterilization program. Using VOIP telephone lines and a web interface, researchers are gathering testimony from women in isolated communities high in the Andes. Many are illiterate and speak only Quechua, the principal indigenous language.

In the video above Francisca Quispe Pontenciano recalls the circumstances which led to her sterilisation. It makes painful listening.

The blame should not fall completely on the Fujimori government. The US government and the United Nations Population Fund gave development aid to the population program, for instance.

Ironically, the abuses began shortly after the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference which had hailed "reproductive freedom" as a basic human right. At the time feminist groups applauded Fujimori's move to make women "masters of their own destiny" by amending a law banning sterilization as a method of birth control. They saw this as a bold step forward and a poke in the eye to Catholic Church, which had been a vigorous opponent of sterilization. As they say: be careful what you wish for.