Anne Roback Morse gave an address on March 13, 2015 at the United Nations surrounding the Commission on the Status of Women at a panel titled, “Coerced Sterilizations, Abortions, and Reproductive Rights.” The following remarks are based on excerpts from that address.
Last November, 83 women were sterilized in a matter of hours at a sterilization camp in the east Indian state of Chhattisgarh. At least a dozen women died from the unhygienic conditions, and the large number of deaths in one sterilization camp garnered international media attention. While sterilization camps rarely claim a dozen lives at a time, women are routinely maimed and killed in sterilization camps in India. In the four months since news of the Chhattisgarh camp broke, sterilization camps and their horrors steadily continue.
India’s “family planning” system is more about controlling reproduction than planning families. Throughout the country, states set yearly and quarterly targets for sterilization “acceptors” and sterilization camps. With the emphasis set on targets, sterilizations are treated as a substitute for holistic healthcare. Women—often the poor, marginalized, and illiterate—pay the price.*
- The very same week that dozens of women were hospitalized in Chhattisgarh , 26 women were sterilized in one hour at a camp in Bilaspur. One woman died.
- Less than two weeks after the Chhattisgarh camp, 132 women were sterilized in 5 hours at night in a camp in Madhya Pradesh. The camp lacked stretchers and beds.
- In early December 2014, a doctor used a bicycle pump to inflate women’s abdomens in the place of a carbon dioxide insufflator during sterilizations in Odisha. A health official told the reporter that, “the use of bicycle pumps in sterilization surgery was widespread.”
- In late December, a woman at a camp in Orissa had her esophagus slashed during a sterilization procedure.
- In early January of this year, 45 women were sterilized at a camp in Uttar Pradesh; the camp officials left the women on the floor after the surgery.
- In January, 43 women were sterilized by flashlight in Jharkhand. The “clinic” had no electricity, and the camp coordinator brought in a generator. The generator died and the sterilization team continued to sterilize women by the light from a flashlight. The women were left on the floor after being sterilized.
- In late January of this year, 73 women were sterilized in four hours in a camp in Uttar Pradesh. The women were not given beds after the procedure, but were left on the floor.
- In early February, 23 women were sterilized and left on the floor in Uttar Pradesh.
- In late February, 60 women were sterilized by the light of flashlights and cell phone lights in four hours in a camp in Uttar Pradesh.
- Earlier this March, 27 women were sterilized in a camp in Uttar Pradesh and then left on the floor next to the bathroom.
According to India’s own government data, sterilizations and abuses are epidemic. According to India’s most recent National Health Survey, over one in three women in India between the ages of 15 and 45 have been sterilized. By the time women reach the age of 35, one in two women in India have been sterilized. Among women who have been sterilized, one in three say that they weren’t informed that the procedure was permanent. Two out of every three women who have undergone the procedure say they were not informed about possible side effects. Most sterilizations are performed on women when they are between the ages of 20 and 35, but one out of every hundred teenage girls in India have also been sterilized. On average, three women die every week from botched sterilizations.**
India’s system of sterilization camps is deliberate and pervasive. India’s systematic sterilization of women en masse, without informed consent, and in dangerous conditions demands our attention.
In just five short years, India will be home to the largest population of women of reproductive age in the world. Anyone concerned with women’s rights—or indeed human rights—cannot continue to ignore India’s systematic sterilization camps. Any country or organization which funds or co-implements sterilization camps in India has the moral obligation to cease funding until India enacts genuine reform in their public health sector. To continue funding of sterilization camps is to incur responsibility for the human rights abuses.
*India’s adult female literacy rate is 53%.
**This is according to official, reported government statistics. The actual number is probably larger.