Between 1996 and 2000, a radical policy of forced sterilizations implemented by the Alberto Fujimori administration left more than 300,000 indigenous women and 20,000 men in Peru infertile.
The operations – part of the National Health Policy – were performed largely in remote areas and often without consent. As many of those affected only speak Quechua or are illiterate, their stories have gone unheard. Now, however, owing to international collaboration and a number of innovative projects, this dark chapter in Peru’s history is finally ready to be closed once and for all.
A turbulent presidency
Fujimori’s turbulent decade-long tenure as president of Peru was marred by controversy. Following his late surge to victory in the 1990 presidential elections as a relative newcomer to politics, Fujimori inherited a country on the verge of economic ruin; ravaged by poverty and political violence. A series of hard-line free market reforms managed to curb hyperinflation but hit ordinary Peruvians hard. In 2007, he was sentenced to six years in jail – charged with various abuses of power relating back to his time in office.
The National Health Policy was initially welcomed as a progressive and voluntary reproductive strategy, but the true nature of Fujimori’s policy of sterilizing large swathes of the indigenous population quickly became apparent. The team behind the Quipu Project – an interactive documentary hoping to raise awareness of the suffering caused – say that “consent was often manipulated or in many cases not obtained.”
In practice, the sterilisations “were often promoted aggressively in impoverished, rural and indigenous communities”, while there are accounts of people “being coerced, forced by medical staff or sterilized without their knowledge while in hospital for another procedure.” Peru’s current president, Ollanta Humala, darkly portrayed the policy as “reducing poverty by preventing the birth of poor people.”
Human rights violations
It is partly due to the work of the Quipu Project that momentum has picked up in the quest for justice. In partnership with Amnesty International and its Against Their Will campaign, the Quipu Project is a ‘living documentary’ using internet technology to collect the testimonies of the sterilized women living in remote areas via phones gifted to their communities. The statements are then transcribed and translated into Spanish, Quechua and English to widen their reach; and can be accessed online around the world.
As the case has gained notoriety, the groups campaigning for and on behalf of those affected made a breakthrough at the end of 2015. Despite prosecutor Marcus Guzman Baca throwing the case out of court the year previous, claiming that he found no evidence of systematic sterilization, the case was reopened on appeal in May 2015.
In November, a Supreme Decree was issued by Peru’s legislature declaring that the sterilizations were “of national interest”. Branded an “act of social justice” by President Humala, the decree called for an official register of victims of the sterilizations to be created and ambiguously seeks to “guarantee their access to justice”. This is the first time that the Peruvian State has recognised any violation of human rights had occurred in the implementation of the National Health Policy.
The historic decree is cause for cautious optimism. Although the battle is by no means won, official recognition of the ongoing suffering endured by the women who were sterilized is invaluable. Although little more than 2,000 women have been registered so far, campaign groups hope that they can push forward with their case for reparations to be paid to the victims. That the decree makes no mention of compensation is a concern, certainly, but a platform has been set from which to press on towards a resolution.
Nearly two decades of frustration finally appear ready to give way to cautious optimism, and justice may at last be secured for the thousands of women tortured for years by an inhumane violation of their civil rights.