Diakonia - People change the world
demonstration Demonstration for the rights of forcibly sterilized women in Peru. Furthest to the left, Maria Isabel Cedano, chairperson of Diakonia’s partner organization Estudio para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (DEMUS).

The crime that nobody wants to acknowledge

“Burn her with a match, then she’ll definitely react – she just wants attention,” said the doctor when Jacinto Salazar’s wife sought medical attention. Two days later, Maria Mamérita Mestanza was dead. She was one of over three thousand women forcibly sterilised in Peru under the regime of Alberto Fujimori. Almost 20 years after her death, Mamérita’s family is continuing to fight for justice.

For several weeks during 1998, staff from the hospital in Cajamarca had been visiting Mamérita in her home. They said to her that it was illegal to have more than five children and that she would end up in prison if she did not get sterilised. Finally, she consented to the operation because she was afraid. Complications and the hospital’s negligence cost her her life.

Systematic sterilisation of women

Unfortunately, Mamérita’s case is not unique. In tents pitched in parks, in small spaces in rural hospitals without proper equipment and at clinics in poor areas of large cities, women were systematically sterilised.

Fujimori’s government implemented a programme that included sterilisation as an investment in sexual and reproductive rights. According to the records, sterilisation was offered as a chance to reduce poverty. The women were to be informed of possible risks and approve the surgery.

But the reality was quite different. What many people didn’t know was that there was a daily quota to be filled, and the doctors who achieved this were rewarded. Sometimes, even the staff at the clinic were sterilised in a desperate attempt to achieve the desired figures. As a result, 3,473 cases were registered between 1996 and 2000. 

Demonstration for forcibly sterilized women's rights. Photo: Benjamín Alcarraz

With violence or under threat of violence

“Several of the women didn’t understand what had happened. The surgery was often carried out without consulting the woman, when they had given birth or during a gynaecological examination. What all the cases have in common is that they were carried out under duress, with violence or under threat of violence,” says Maria Isabel Cedano, chairperson of Diakonia’s partner organization Estudio para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (DEMUS).

The majority of those forcibly sterilised were women from indigenous populations; residents of the Andes and the Amazon. Many could neither read nor write, which was exploited to facilitate the paperwork. Their signatures and those of their witnesses were forged.

“The government took the liberty of deciding which women could become mothers and which couldn’t,” says Maria Isabel.

Too good to be true

“This is a gross violation by the government. The whole thing was packaged so attractively – as a victory for sexual and reproductive rights. We feminists should have understood that it was too good to be true. That it wasn’t about rights but about social cleansing. The only thing we can do now is to fight for redress for what we didn’t see at the time.”

The investigation into Mamérita’s case begins a few months after her death. One year later, the case is quashed due to lack of evidence.

So, in 1999, along with a number of other feminist organizations and Mamérita’s family, DEMUS decided to present her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The government of Peru confessed to being guilty of having violated Mamérita’s rights, and an agreement was signed between the government and the organizations; however, large parts of this agreement have still not been fulfilled. A proper investigation has never been conducted, and those responsible have not been brought to justice.

“Mamérita’s children have never visited a hospital. They’re scared that what happened to their mother will happen again. The same doctors still work in the village where they live – how could they ever trust the government?” asks Maria Isabel.

More than 3 000 women were forcibly sterilized between 1996 and 2000.

Following the decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the government of Peru undertook to set up a working party that would devise political measures to support the victims, but so far nothing has happened.

An almost unknown crime

The reality of forcibly sterilised women is a crime that is more or less unknown outside Peru’s borders, and even within the country itself, many people do not want to acknowledge what happened.

Critics claim that the numbers have been exaggerated, that all women were of full age and capacity and that they gave their consent. The women who died are considered to be indirect victims. 

“The fact that the number of sterilisations increased by over 100 percent during these years is no coincidence – it was a conscious strategy. Independent witness testimonies from various parts of Peru also show that this not only took place locally but was part of a nationwide policy,” says Maria Isabel.

During Fujimori’s years in power, ten in total, human rights were violated in several different areas. After having lived in exile in Japan, Fujimori returned to Latin America and was sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment in 2009 due to being responsible for murder and kidnapping. In recent months, the rumour has begun to spread that Fujimori is going to be pardoned on account of his age and state of health.

Many organizations are of the opinion, however, that this would be a further violation of the rights of the sterilised women, as the case is still open and the women are still fighting for justice and redress.

DEMUS is now working to ensure that more cases are taken up by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and that the government of Peru follows Commission guidelines in Mamérita’s case.

“No plans to give up”

“We’ve understood that there’s no point demanding justice in this country. We want the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take up the case in its entirety as a crime against humanity to ensure that the government is held accountable. It’s been difficult but we have no plans to give up.”

DEMUS’ strategy is to carry out demonstrations at each meeting of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the region to raise awareness of the cases.

“The world must open its eyes to what happened to women in Peru and understand that impunity is not an option.”