HIV-positive women forcibly sterilised in Namibia, says court

Ruling hailed by activists as a victory for women throughout Africa

Namibia’s Supreme Court on Monday found that HIV-positive women were forcibly sterilised after giving birth - a decision hailed by activists as a victory for women throughout Africa.

The southern African nation’s highest court dismissed a government appeal against a judgement holding it liable for sterilising three HIV-positive women in state hospitals without their informed consent.

Chief Justice Peter Shivute ruled that the doctors should not have sterilised the women and ordered consideration of damages for the victims, who each claimed approximately $90,000.

The director of the Namibian Women’s Health Network, Jennifer Gatsi Mallet, applauded the decision, saying the cases were only the tip of the iceberg.

“We have documented dozens of cases of other HIV-positive women who have been forcibly sterilised. The government needs to take active steps to ensure all women subjected to this unlawful practice get redress,” she said.

Mallet said the decision proves that “public hospitals in Namibia have been coercively sterilising HIV-positive women without their consent.”

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which backed the women in their legal challenge, said the decision had far-reaching consequences for HIV-positive women throughout Africa who have been forcibly sterilised.

“This decision sends a clear message that governments throughout Africa must take concrete actions to end this practice,” said deputy director Priti Patel.

The judge said the women should have been allowed to make an informed decision and been given an opportunity to return to the hospital later to undergo sterilisation if they wanted.

“None of the respondents gave informed consent because they were in varying degrees of labour and may not have fully and rationally comprehended the consequences of giving consent for the sterilisation procedure,” he said.

“There can be no place in this day and age for medical paternalism when it comes to the important moment of deciding whether or not to undergo a sterilisation procedure.”

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