(WOMENSENEWS)— For almost a decade, I’ve been working at the Center for Reproductive Rights, a global legal advocacy organization dedicated to advancing and defending reproductive rights. Every day we fight for a future when all women will exercise autonomy over their reproductive health care, and live in equality, with dignity. But too often, the nearly 17 million women living with HIV-AIDS worldwide are deprived of those fundamental rights.
They face widespread stigma and discrimination, especially when access to health care and reproductive rights are at stake. At the Center, we are currently litigating the first case before a regional system, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to seek government accountability for violations of the sexual and reproductive rights of women living with HIV.
A young woman known as F.S., from a rural town in Chile, was 20 years old, pregnant, and living with HIV when she went into labor in November 2002. A surgeon delivered her baby via cesarean. Aware of her condition, he also did something unthinkable: He surgically sterilized her during the delivery, without her knowledge and without ever discussing sterilization with her and her husband and quite clearly without her consent.
Chilean law requires written consent from a woman before any sterilization procedure. In March 2007, F.S. filed a criminal complaint against the surgeon. However, the public prosecutor carried out a substandard police investigation and the Chilean judiciary dismissed the case, claiming F.S. had given verbal consent to sterilization.
She continues to suffer physical and psychological harms from this violation of her human rights. The Center for Reproductive Rights and its partner Vivo Positivo brought the case known as F.S. v. Chile before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2009 and we are eager to continue battling on behalf of F.S. to win her the justice she and all women living with HIV deserve.
Although Chile has established a stable democracy in the two decades since the end of the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship, economic development and political stability have not translated into full and equal fulfillment of women’s fundamental human rights. For example, Chile didn’t legalize divorce until 2004. The country also has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world; it criminalizes abortion without exception, even when necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman.
As a Chilean and as a woman, I believe all governments are obligated to respect, protect, and fulfill women’s fundamental human rights. A woman living with HIV has just as much of a right as any other woman to decide what's best for her health and her life, including whether to start a family. Most importantly, she deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
This isn’t just an issue in Chile. Cases of forced sterilization of women living with HIV have occurred in other parts of the world, including Kenya and most recently Namibia, where 15 women, sterilized without their consent, have brought a complaint against the government.
At this week’s XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., I’ll be on a panel, with Tyler Crone, of the ATHENA Network, and Priti Patel, of the Southern African Litigation Centre, to discuss forced sterilization in depth and share the challenges faced and the strategies to ensure the protection of the reproductive rights of women living with HIV.
My hope is to continue raising awareness for this serious social issue and for F.S. The Chilean State has a responsibility to address the human rights violation that F.S. suffered, to provide reparations, and to adopt and enforce policies that guarantee women living with HIV the freedom to make reproductive health decisions without coercion.
Lilian Sepúlveda is director of the Global Legal Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights.