Peru’s history of forced sterilisation overshadows vote

Presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori carries the burden of her father’s involvement in forced sterilisations.

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Protesters paint their legs red to symbolise the forced sterilisations [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

Lima, Peru – Victoria Vigo was in the 32nd week of her third pregnancy when she went to hospital complaining of pains. She was immediately taken to the operating room and given a C-section. Her baby lived for only a few hours. 

Vigo was devastated. But what made it worse was overhearing one of the doctors talk about how she was now being sterilised. 

It was 1996 and Vigo had heard rumours of other women being forcibly sterilised, but had never thought it would happen to her. 

Five months later, when a group of researchers from a local university visited her, she found out that her name was on a list that had been sent to the government as proof that the hospital had fulfilled their quota of sterilisations.

Vigo sued the hospital and won her case several years later.  

Between 1996 and 2000, during Alberto Fujimori’s second term as president, somewhere between 260,000 and 350,000 people, mostly poor, female and Quechua-speaking, were sterilised.

In 2,074 cases, women gave statements testifying that the procedure had been done against their will. Some reported the use of violence, some to being offered money in exchange for undergoing it and others, like Vigo, said they’d had their tubes tied while hospitalised for other reasons.

At least 18 women are known to have died of complications arising from the procedure.

Ollanta Humala, the current president of Peru, created a database of the victims. Furthermore, last May, the authorities reopened a case against Alberto Fujimori – who is already serving a 25-year sentence for corruption and crimes against humanity for directing death squads – over his role in the sterilisation programme.

Protesters opposed to presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori display cartoons [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]
Protesters opposed to presidential candidate Keiko Fujimori display cartoons [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]

‘Most doctors feared losing their jobs’

In the 1990s, Dr Rogelio del Carmen Martino worked in a small medical centre in the north of Peru called Centro de Salud Maternal Infantil de Castilla (CESAMICA), near the city of Piura. He says his team of four – an anaesthetist, two surgeons and a gynaecologist – were ordered to sterilise 250 women in three days.

“It was technically impossible,” Del Carmen told Al Jazeera by phone. “Such a treatment would put the lives of patients in danger. We would have to work like a chorizo machine.

“So we went to Lima to complain, but during the meeting it was clear to me that the people giving the orders on behalf of the Fujimori government didn’t understand why their demand was so absurd.”

Some in Del Carmen’s team had studied abroad, so they knew that even if they were fired as a result of refusing to sterilise the women, other job opportunities would arise. 

But, the doctor says, his team was an exception: most medical staff in village hospitals didn’t enjoy the same luxuries, and therefore didn’t feel they could complain about the situation.

“Most doctors feared losing their jobs,” he says. “So they simply had to do what they were told and reach their quotas.”

For Del Carmen the most important thing now is justice. And as Keiko Fujimori, Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, runs for the presidency in Sunday’s elections, he says he isn’t drawing attention to the actions of her father in order to discredit her.

“I respect politicians,” he explains. “And this is not just a story to smear Keiko Fujimori’s name. But it is important that it becomes clear what happened in that period, and who was responsible for it.”

After her parents’ divorce in 1994, at the age of 18, Keiko Fujimori became the First Lady of Peru until the end of her father’s presidency in 2000. As a result, many consider her tainted by the actions of her father during these years.

In a recent speech at Harvard, Keiko Fujimori blamed medical staff when asked about the sterilisations, and said she lamented the damage inflicted on the victims.

But, according to Peruvian newspaper La Republica, the orders containing these quotas came directly from the Ministry of Public Health.

Demonstrators on the streets of Lima [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera] 
Demonstrators on the streets of Lima [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera] 

‘Eliminate poverty, eliminate the poor’

Last Tuesday, Victoria Vigo went to the Plaza San Martín in the Peruvian capital of Lima to take part in a march against Keiko Fujimori.

The date of the march was symbolical to the protesters: in 1992, Alberto Fujimori staged a coup against his own government on that day – dissolving Congress, intervening in the judiciary and letting the armed forces block independent media.

La Republica published empty pages the following day in protest against the censorship.

During the protest, in which at least 30,000 people participated, the demonstrators chanted: “We are the children of the villagers who you couldn’t sterilise.”

“The idea then was: to eliminate poverty, we simply eliminate the poor,” says Sandra de la Cruz, a social sciences student and communications officer at the organisation Somos 2074 y muchas mas, which refers to the 2,074 women who testified to being sterilised against their will.

“The historical context was very violent. There were soldiers everywhere fighting the [Shining Path] guerrillas. Imagine tents set up in this chaotic situation, where women were led without understanding anything that was told to them about what was going to happen.”

For Vigo, a mea culpa would be sufficient. She says she doesn’t bear a grudge and doesn’t want to see anybody jailed for what happened to her. But, she says, it is important that somebody takes responsibility for it.

“I am one of the few victims who does speak Spanish and dares to talk about what happened,” she says.

But Vigo is not afraid that something like this could happen again if Keiko Fujimori becomes president. She believes the young are too well informed nowadays.

“They are watching her [Fujimori] with every step she takes. So, even if she wanted to, a programme like the sterilisations would be impossible to set up. Times have changed for the better.”

Victoria Vigo among protesters who were chanting: 'We are the children of the villagers who you couldn't sterilise' [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]
Victoria Vigo among protesters who were chanting: ‘We are the children of the villagers who you couldn’t sterilise’ [Eline van Nes/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera