By Mofihli Teleki
The World Health Organisation says: “Sterilisation should only be provided with the full, free and informed consent of the individual.”
However, in some countries, people belonging to certain population groups, including people living with HIV, persons with disabilities, indigenous people, ethnic minorities, transgender and intersex persons continue to be sterilised without their consent.
In February, South Africans were exposed to the horrific state of affairs pertaining to the practice of forced sterilisation at many hospitals in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
This was unveiled in the report by the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE), which enumerated the experiences of how women who were HIV positive were sterilised without consent. In some cases, some of them were left with long-term negative impacts on their reproductive health as well as psychological scars.
Forced sterilisation was an integral part of the injustice of the apartheid system which sought to decrease the amount of births by black women.
It had the purpose of decimating the black race in order to control rapid urbanisation and militancy against the apartheid regime.
Forced sterilisation brings into question the nexus between human rights and sexual reproductive health care practices. The CGE findings are one of medical negligence and failure to uphold medical ethics and to protect and promote the rights of women to bodily autonomy. Forced sterilisation is a violation of human rights.
Women in a democratic South Africa suffer the same violations as those during apartheid. The CGE noted that many clinics and hospitals have been denying women access to sexual and reproductive health services. Amid the disaster regulations, the CGE intervened in urgent cases.
Some of the issues were resolved by liaison between the CGE and Department of Health.
Reproductive rights should be fiercely defended in light of what the apartheid government sought to do. It is easy to deduce that the apartheid legacy on forced sterilisation can be equated to “ethnic cleansing”.
Reproductive health rights form the cornerstone of access to health care under the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. South Africa is a signatory to the UN Convention on Elimination of Discrimination of Women.
South Africa is also state party to the Beijing Platform for Action which describes involuntary sterilisation as “a form of violence against women”.
South Africa has passed the Sterilisation Act of 1998, which criminalises forced sterilisation.
Sections of the National Health Act also outlaw the practice. The absence of certain rights during lockdown should not affect the rights to bodily integrity, dignity and security of persons.
The health-care system requires empathy from those in health care.
The people, who are beneficiaries of the right to access health care, should be placed at the centre of service delivery. The mortality rate is therefore dependent on the adequate access and preservation of reproductive rights.
Health-care institutions are thus duty bound by the Constitution to advance the right to life, dignity, reproductive services and security of persons.
We remain committed to promoting and protecting gender equality through access to health including sexual and reproductive health.
Mofihli Teleki is head of communications: Commission for Gender Equality.