Ian Riley

Silenced Women: The Fight for Recognition in Peru

At the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, soon after then-First Lady Hillary Clinton gave her famous speech declaring that, ‘women’s rights are human rights,’ the President of Peru, Alberto Fujimori, declared his intention to bring reproductive rights to his country’s poorest people. His speech received resounding applause, and The New York Times reported that Fujimori was taking on the Peruvian Church and the Vatican in an attempt to bring family planning and contraception to all of Latin America. The president’s program promised to fight poverty, bringing independence and modernity to Peru’s poor, rural women through contraception and sex education. The US Agency for International Development (USAID) funnelled millions of dollars and thousands of pounds of foodstuff to aid the government in their plans. Part of this money was distributed to an organisation based in Lima, Movimiento Manuela Ramos, while the rest of the funds went to the government to launch family planning campaigns and provide services without a fee. Feminist groups in Peru celebrated the new focus on reproductive health and gender equality.

It was not until nearly a decade after these events that Fujimori’s program was revealed to have a sinister underside. As the former president was jailed in 2000 for charges related to human rights violations, abuse of power and corruption, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched in 2003 to detail the many abuses of his regime. This report included details about the excesses of the family planning program, but these did not attract much attention amid sensational claims about politically motivated murders, torture and kidnapping. However, a group of committed women and human rights groups have ensured that the truth about the program is revealed.

Ian Riley
Image courtesy of Ian Riley, © 2004, some rights reserved.

From 1996 to 2000, Fujimori’s ‘National Population Program’ was responsible for sterilising 272,000 women and 22,004 men without their informed consent. These women were typically poor and indigenous, primarily from isolated villages and largely illiterate in Spanish. Under this program the Ministry of Health gave village doctors daily and monthly quotas, requiring them to sterilise a certain number of women. If they failed to meet these numbers, doctors could be fired. This resulted in health care providers deploying tactics that were coercive and misleading. While some women claimed that they were given birth control pills for a headache or had an inter-uterine device inserted in them without being told, other women were rounded up through mass food distributions where they were then threatened with imprisonment and fines if they did not go through with sterilisation. Some women gave testimony about being sterilised immediately after giving birth at the hospital or when they attempted to register their new babies. Most of the sterilisations were performed quickly and carelessly, in unclean facilities. While USAID funds were used to conduct the procedures, they did not go towards improving the infrastructure or sanitation of facilities in rural village hospitals. Today, many victims report persisting physical pain from the procedure. At least eighteen women are known to have died from repercussions related to their sterilisation.

More than twenty years later, the women of Peru are still waiting for justice. The earliest attempt to get Fujimori and officials at the Ministry of Health prosecuted for their crimes came in 1999, when five NGO groups brought the case of Maria Mamerita Mestanza Chavez, a woman who died after being sterilised, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Peruvian government agreed to compensate Maria’s family and accept legal responsibility for what had been inflicted on her. In 2003, a government-wide investigation into the government campaign to sterilise indigenous was launched. Since then, the government has launched and closed legal investigations three times. The latest investigation in 2014 ended when public prosecutor Marcelita Gutierrez decided not to press charges against Fujimori or the Ministry of Health, stating that there was no conclusive evidence that there was a state policy of forced sterilisation. Peru’s indigenous women have yet to receive compensation or a government-wide apology for their persisting pain and heartbreak.

However, the women affected by Fujimori’s policies are not giving up yet. Victims of the program and Peruvian NGOs have teamed up to launch the Quipa Project, where women and men affected by the program can call a free number and share testimonies about their experiences. This has provided a new way for previously marginalised and isolated women to share their stories. The Project has had a momentous effect on the victims of sterilisations, many of whom had no idea that women outside of their village were also sterilised. In addition, this has given women the ability to provide the heart-breaking details of their personal stories. This could go a long way in a country where many people either deny or try to justify what happened to the country’s indigenous women.

While legal recognition and governmental compensation remain allusive, the Quipa Project has already had a considerable impact on the political landscape of Peru. It was in large part responsible for tanking the 2016 presidential campaign of Fujimori’s daughter and former First Lady, Keiko Fujimori. The younger Fujimori was forced to respond to the growing visibility of her father’s crimes on the campaign trial, and gave a statement where she expressed her empathy with the sterilised women but placed the blame for the procedure on independent medical professionals and not her father’s government. This sidestep did not stop the Quipa project from irrecoverably tainting her campaign, especially considering that Keiko had assumed the role of First Lady after her parent’s divorce in 1994, so is closely associated with her father’s regime.

The Quipa Project and the mobilisation of Peru’s indigenous women have revealed shameful state secrets. For decades, most of the victims of Fujimori’s regime have remained silent about the injustices that they suffered at the hands of their government. The international community has remained oblivious to these women’s pain, while celebrating Fujimori’s ‘progressive’ campaign to bring contraception to a country ravaged by poverty. While the battle for justice may take another decade, Peru’s indigenous women are no longer suffering in silence.

Leave a Reply