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NGO mulls legal action against hospitals

Pascalinah Kabi

A LOCAL human rights organisation, Women and Law in Southern Africa (WILSA) is mulling “strategic litigation” on behalf of 470 Basotho women living with HIV who claim they were forcibly sterilised in some government hospitals.

They plan to sue government hospitals in the districts of Leribe, Mokhotlong and Qacha’s Nek for allegedly practicing forced sterilisation, follows the release of WILSA’s 2017 research report which found that more than 470 HIV Positive women were illegally sterilised.

WILSA research showed that although the women had gone to seek different medical services at the hospitals, they ended up undergoing tubal-ligation and hysterectomy without their knowledge.

However, the move to sue the hospitals can only be undertaken if the alleged victims are prepared to speak out and agree to take legal action.

Tubal-ligation, which is also referred to as tubectomy or tying of the tubes, is a surgical procedure for sterilisation in which a woman’s fallopian tubes are clamped and blocked or severed and sealed to prevent eggs from reaching the uterus for implantation.

Hysterectomy is the surgical removal of the uterus. It may also involve removal of the cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes and other surrounding structures. Usually performed by a gynecologist, hysterectomy may be total or partial.

In a recent interview, WILSA Legal Programmes Officer, Lebohang Leeu said the affected women went to different government hospitals to seek various medical services but ended up getting services they had not requested.

Advocate Leeu said the programme, which specifically targets women of child-bearing age and living with HIV, was triggered by their discussions with the Community of Women living with HIV and Aids who highlighted multiple human rights violations.

“We conducted the latest study in Leribe, Mokhotlong and Qacha’s Nek and we finalised the report last month (December 2017). We are yet to release the report, but I can tell you that more 470 women in these three districts have undergone forced sterilisation,” Adv Leeu said.

“We discovered through interviews that some of these women were seeking services including dilation and curettage (D&C) or cleaning of the womb, while others went to deliver their babies. It was during these processes that they were sterilised without their consent.

“We could tell that in some cases women signed consent forms to undergo caesarean section surgery and it was during that procedure where tubal-ligation or hysterectomy surgeries were performed without their knowledge,” Adv Leeu said.

She said most of the victims only came to know what had happened after they were told by some doctors they could not conceive because they were sterilized.

Adv Leeu said among the victims was a young woman who was sterilised at the age of 18, just after having her first child.

“Her hopes of having more children were dashed by one clinician who decided that her HIV status must determine the number of children she has. The clinician claimed that it was risky for her to have other children.

“We view this as pure evil and a serious violation of these women’s Sexual and Reproductive Rights. Every person has a right to a family, to have children and spacing and no one is supposed to make that decision on their behalf.”

Adv Leeu said suing the hospitals would enable them to account for the loss and injustice suffered by the women.

Asked if there were any discussions of the allegations with the particular hospitals, Adv Leeu said no one from government was willing to discuss the matter despite countless efforts to set-up meetings.

“Surprisingly, sterilisation for HIV negative women in Lesotho is a long drawn out process where one is asked to sign some consent forms in addition to bringing their spouses or guardians to sign the consent forms for the process to be undertaken and yet for HIV Positive women, that is not the case,” Adv Leeu said.

Contacted for a comment, Sexual and Reproductive Health Manager for the Ministry of Health, Motsoanku ‘Mefane dismissed the WILSA findings as “another country’s report and not of Lesotho”.

She further stated that it was difficult to comment on a study whose methodologies were never communicated to her ministry.

“It is common practice that anybody who wants to undertake a study related to health issues must consult the Ministry of Health from the beginning and that we must see the questions put forward to the people.

“Now we did not see the questions and I am wondering how the questions were put forward knowing that ordinary Basotho women don’t really understand what is sterilisation. For them sterilisation is one form of contraceptive method not different from taking a pill, using a loop or an injection for example. Some do not know it is an irreversible form of contraceptive method. However, the practice in all government hospitals is that before contraceptive methods are administered to anyone, each and every contraceptive method is explained to these women, including women living with HIV,” Ms Mefane said.

“WILSA got some funding from somewhere and decided to embark on this so-called study without engaging the Ministry of Health. You cannot then expect me to respond on that study where someone took some herd boys, gave them questions to ask the women and then claim that Basotho women living with HIV were sterilised without their consent. No Mosotho woman living with HIV and AIDS has been sterilised without their consent. That is another country’s study, not of Lesotho,” she said.


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