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Peru’s government forcibly sterilized Indigenous women from 1996 to 2001, the women say. Why?

Indigenous women have been demanding justice ever since.

A woman of the Shipibo-Konibo ethnic group uses a water tap in a community along the Rímac River, in Lima, Peru, in February. (Luis Angel Gonzales/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Under the authoritarian government of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), thousands of Indigenous Peruvian women say they were forcibly sterilized under a family planning program launched to “promote, prevent, cure, and rehabilitate reproductive health to the highest quality.” Nearly three decades later, on Jan. 11, the first hearing on Indigenous Peruvian women who say they were coercively sterilized took place.

How did this happen? To find answers, I collected data through archival research, interviews of human rights experts and victims’ public testimonies. My research finds that the family planning program, rooted in colonial-era discrimination, targeted people of Indigenous descent who were considered to be the “problem factor for economic development” and sought to coercively control the reproduction of this group to help the economy stabilize and grow.

Family planning derailed

In its original form, the Reproductive Health and Family Planning Program implemented during Fujimori’s administration via the Health Ministry was regarded by feminist activists as a progressive step toward respecting women’s rights. It aimed to increase access to maternal health services. It also sought to provide women with more information about family planning and access to contraception. This approach — and the very idea that women have reproductive rights — put the government at odds with the Catholic Church, a powerful force in Peru. Seventy-six percent of Peruvians are Catholic; many abide by the Church’s teaching against contraception.

Despite church opposition, the program proceeded. Months into its implementation, however, irregularities manifested. Human rights lawyer Giulia Tamayo León investigated and found program officials had sterilized thousands of women against their will. My research shows that from 1996 to 2001, officials sterilized 272,028 people. The majority were poor, rural, Indigenous, Quechua-speaking women. Many women suffered medical complications and some died.

What went wrong? Officials held family planning campaigns predominantly across rural and poor communities, where the majority of the population were of Indigenous descent. Health officials were also pressured by the Health Ministry to meet sterilization quotas to quickly expand the control on women’s reproductive health. Officials were paid monetary rewards from the ministry when they met those quotas; they were threatened with demotions when they did not. These factors combined to encourage officials to focus on the group easiest to coerce into sterilization: Indigenous women, whose identity represented the intersections of a marginalized gender in a patriarchal society, impoverished economic class neglected from wealth, and ethnic group excluded from power and discriminated from the colonial era.

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The long road to justice

In 2000, Fujimori resigned from office and Peru began to transition to democracy. Valentín Paniagua’s interim government and democratically elected President Alejandro Toledo launched transitional justice policies to address human rights violations committed under Fujimori and his predecessors, a period of internal armed conflict. In 2001, Peru established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The government also joined the International Criminal Court and passed laws providing reparations for the government’s victims.

But none of these measures included the survivors of coercive sterilizations. Why not? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had a mandate to investigate all forms of violations of fundamental rights, including acts perpetrated by the state and guerrilla forces (most notably the Shining Path) from 1980 to 2000. Although coercive sterilizations occurred during that period, they resulted from a state-led policy, not the armed conflict. Despite the grave nature of the atrocities (under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, forced sterilization is a crime against humanity), the Indigenous women’s plight was not eligible for inclusion.

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Second, Indigenous women were not included in the original reparations plan. The Integral Plan of Reparations, passed in 2005, enacted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations and aimed to “repair and compensate” the regime’s and guerrillas’ victims for their social, moral, and material suffering and loss. Again, though, these provisions included only those harmed by armed conflict. Even though their rights were violated at the same time, survivors of the family planning program were excluded from recognition on the monument that memorialized the 69,000 individuals killed and disappeared during the internal armed conflict. Only in January and February of this year did Peru’s Congress correct this oversight.

Justice and impunity

After 25 years, on Jan. 11, the first hearing on coercive sterilizations took place. The accused included Fujimori, his health ministers, and various doctors allegedly responsible for those crimes. In 2009, Peru had convicted and imprisoned Fujimori for human rights abuses, released him on humanitarian grounds in 2017, and ordered him back to jail in 2018. While Fujimori had the option of being present at the hearing, despite his prison sentence, he chose to be represented by his lawyer instead.

However, less than an hour into the hearing, the judge suspended the session. As a victim introduced herself in Quechua — the language most spoken among the Indigenous peoples of Peru — the courtroom erupted with objections. Lawyers for the accused argued that they needed translators who spoke a wide variety of Quechua dialects to ensure that they could understand the hearing. The only interpreter present noted he could translate only one Quechua dialect. Seizing on the opportunity to delay the legal case, Fujimori’s lawyer pressured the judge, Rafael Martín Martínez, to suspend the hearing.

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The hearing has been rescheduled for March 1. Survivors of coercive sterilizations wait once again to seek justice and end the impunity that has persisted for over two decades.

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Ñusta Carranza Ko (@KoNusta) is an assistant professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Baltimore.