Friday, 20 April 2012

Forced sterilisations - what we can do

You will, I'm sure, have read the BBC news story by Natalia Antelava about forced sterilisations in Uzbekistan, which appeared on the "Magazine" section of its news website on 12 April.  Although sterilisation is not officially part of Uzbekistan law, it appears that doctors are being given quotas of women to sterilise each month and that this not infrequently happens via hysterectomy following a Caesarean section - with the woman waking up to find that she no longer has a womb and will not be able to choose to have more children (or not realising what has happened until she tries to add to her family).

Other women are pressured to undergo a sterilisation procedure. To quote from Antelava's article, "On paper, sterilisations should be voluntary, but women don't really get a choice," says a senior doctor from a provincial hospital, who wished to remain unnamed. "It's very easy to manipulate a woman, especially if she is poor. You can say that her health will suffer if she has more children. You can tell her that sterilisation is best for her. Or you can just do the operation."

The reason for this sterilisation programme is, of course, population control, but apparently several medical professionals have claimed it is "also a bizarre short-cut to lowering maternal and infant mortality rates" and improving Uzbekistan's standing in international league tables.

Uzbekistan's human rights record is notoriously shocking and even the women who have dared to speak about what has happened to them are at great risk, let alone foreign journalists or human rights activists.  So what can we do?

As far as direct and immediate action is concerned, international pressure needs to be brought to bear.  Islam Karimov, the President of Uzbekistan, once a "pariah" in the Western World, has recently been brought back in from the cold, with the USA and EU lifting sanctions including a US ban on arms sales.  This seems to be for reasons connected to national or military interests; for example, Nato uses Uzbekistan as one of its access routes to Afghanistan when transporting troops and supplies.

Antelava reports that Western dignitaries visiting the country recently have remained largely silent on the country's human rights record.  She quotes Steve Swerdlow, Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, as saying "Karimov has managed to get to the point in his relationship with the West when there are no consequences for his actions and human rights abuses. There is a deafening silence when it comes to human rights. Reports of forced sterilisation add urgency to breaking this silence."

Avaaz have launched a petition that you can sign urging US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to reintroduce pressure on Karimov.  Ms Clinton is not known for her support of pro-life causes (to say the least) but in this case - ironically enough - her concern for women's rights, much as pro-lifers might sometimes disagree with the way in which she perceives these, brings her onto the pro-life side.  You can sign the petition here.

Family life is worth protecting and nurturing
Long-term, we come back to the point made by Peter Saunders and quoted in the previous post on this blog.  We need to work for a global change of mindset.  It isn't just Karimov's mind that needs changing, because - if we are honest and clear-eyed about it - this is just the extreme end of a continuum that many modern-day societies sit on somewhere.  We don't force sterilisations or abortions, but we subscribe to many of the same ideas about population control and family size.  We don't perform medical procedures on women against their will, but we do allow all sorts of pressures to bear on them when they are trying to make decisions about pregnancy.  We say we are a country of free speech in which individuals can make their own informed decisions without fear of physically violent reprisal, but when we debate issues such as abortion then enormous amounts of damaging verbal vitriol are often released. 

Swerdlow feels that Uzbekistan's attempt to manipulate its position in international league tables by underhand means is "typical of dictatorships that need to construct a narrative built on something other than the truth" - but how often do we do this ourselves when we allow our support for "women's rights" to ignore those of the unborn child?  There is a balance here that needs to be found and I don't think that either Uzbekistan or the USA and Britain have it right.

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