August 14, 2012
In a landmark judgment, the High Court in Windhoek (Namibia) ruled that the Namibian government had coercively sterilised three HIV-positive women in violation of their basic rights.
“This decision is a significant victory for HIV positive women in Namibia,” said Nicole Fritz, the Executive Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC). “This ruling affirms not only the rights of HIV positive women but also of all women to access their sexual and reproductive rights.”
No informed consent
The case, H.N. and Others v Government of the Republic of Namibia involved three HIV-positive women who sought to access pre-natal services at public hospitals in Namibia. The three women ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-40s when they were sterilised. All three were sterilised without their informed consent while accessing such services.
Ruling in the women’s favour, the High Court held that obtaining consent from women when they were in severe pain or in labour did not constitute informed consent. The Court further found that failure to obtain the three women’s informed consent violated the women’s rights under common law. The women will be awarded damages, although the amount is still to be decided.
Tip of the iceberg
“These three cases represent only the tip of the iceberg because numerous HIV positive women have come forward alleging they were similarly subjected to coerced sterilisation at public hospitals in Namibia,” said Fritz.
Dozens of other cases have been documented throughout Namibia of HIV positive women being subjected to coerced sterilisation. However, despite significant evidence of the widespread practice throughout Namibia, little action has been taken to address this problem.
“This decision is the first step in ensuring that no other women will be coercively sterilised in public hospitals in Namibia,” said Priti Patel, SALC Deputy Director. “Now the government must meaningfully investigate all the other cases to ensure justice for every woman who has been coercively sterilised.”
Recently, the Namibian Women’s Health Network (NWHN), together with the Northeastern University Law School and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School (IHRC) published a report on the stigma and discrimination of women living with HIV in Namibia. Entitled At the Hospital There Are No Human Rights, the report examines the human rights situation related to sexual and reproductive health of women living with HIV, including the gravity and ongoing nature of forced and coerced sterilizations in Namibia.