In Zimbabwe, HIV positive mothers and soon-to-be mothers used to be sterilised. The procedure was seen as the only way of preventing the transmission of HIV to their unborn or newborn babies. Now the tide has turned. Medical advances mean HIV mothers have a much better chance of having healthy babies. And some women are now seeking compensation from the government.
By Garikai Chaunza, Harare
“I was HIV positive when I became pregnant. I went to see my doctor for counselling. At that time, I had no information whatsoever. My doctor probably didn't have any either. He told me the best option was sterilisation,” says Tendayi Westerhof.
The woman was sterilised in the early 1990s. Today she feels duped and is seeking compensation from the government for what she has been through. “Now I cannot bear children anymore,” she says. “Even though I was HIV positive, I had the right to give birth to a healthy child. There were other choices that I could have made.”
HIV positive babies
Westerhof’s case is not an isolated one. It's believed that many, many HIV positive women were sterilised without consent. Most of the sterilisation cases occurred in Zimbabwe between 1985 and 2004, despite the advent of the prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) programme in the mid-1990s. The procedure was done in both private and public healthcare centres.
Westerhof, who is still using the surname of her ex-husband, Dutch football coach Clemens Westerhof, is involved in the Pan-African Positive Women’s Coalition (PAPWC). The organisation, representing women living with HIV, is documenting such cases in Zimbabwe to establish the actual number of sterilisation victims. The coalition plans to take their evidence to the courts to demand compensation from the government.
“We have seen an increase in the number of women living with HIV and being coerced into sterilisations throughout the region. We assume that the same thing is happening to poor women as well. To us this is a real challenge. We are assisting women to make sure that their right to give birth - despite being HIV positive - is observed and respected,” says Promise Mthembu, regional coordinator of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS.
Her organisation has been involved in documenting evidence of the forced sterilisation of HIV positive women since 1998, when Mthembu launched an investigation in Namibia. But not everyone supports the cause. The head of the HIV and AIDS and Tuberculosis at Zimbabwe's Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, Owen Mugurungi, denies that the government adopted sterilisation as a method of preventing HIV transmission from mother to child.
“As a country, we never at any point recommended sterilisation. Never. Sterilisation was used as one of our country's family planning methods, but only with the consent of the mother. For example, it was used when mothers, who had four or five children, found out that she had contracted HIV. Women were asked if they would consider sterilisation as a means of family planning,” Dr Mugurungi told Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
Saying he was busy, Dr Mugurungi refused to make any further comments.
Prevention of mother-to-child transmission is proving extremely effective. The treatment involves a long course of antiretroviral drugs and the avoidance of breastfeeding, which reduces the risk to below 2 percent. According to the World Health Organisation, since the introduction of PMTC in 1995, hundreds of thousands of children around the globe have avoided acquiring HIV because of antiretroviral prophylaxis.