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For more than 20 years, thousands of Peruvian women have been seeking justice, alleging they were sterilized without consent in the 1990s under an aggressive population control campaign carried out by the government of former President Alberto Fujimori. But in October, criminal charges were filed against Fujimori and several of his former health ministers. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Kira Kay reports.
A half-century ago, the United Nations embraced family planning as a human right. But sometimes member states have been accused of implementing family planning policies in ways that violate rather than promote that right. One such case is Peru, where thousands of women are seeking justice for what they say are government crimes committed against them in the name of family planning. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay has our story.
It is a moment 20 years in the making: dozens of indigenous Peruvian women arrive to give testimony to national prosecutors, the beginnings of a possible new criminal case on their behalf. We were asked by officials to not show their faces or reveal their words. But outside the building, the women were eager to share with us what they told the prosecutors: that in the 1990s, during the regime of strongman President Alberto Fujimori, they were sterilized without their consent, by doctors working for the Peruvian Health Service.
Fidelia Paucar Puma:
They asked me how many children I had. I said I had three. They said if your husband is a farmer and you do not work, how can you support your children?
Benedicta Bendezú Huamán:
We are mocked in our communities. I was ashamed, but now we have come together and will demand justice.
What happened to us in the era of Alberto Fujimori was forced upon each of us, to every sister, in every province.
Rute Zuñiga was 29 years old in 1999, and had just given birth to her fourth child when, she says, health officials showed up at her door.
They said to me, 'why have you not come down to the health center? We need to give your daughter her vaccine.' Then they said, 'we are going to check you too' and they made me get on the stretcher. I asked the doctor 'what are you going to do to me?' He said, 'It's not much we are going to do, it's just a tiny cut.'
That "tiny cut" was a tubal ligation, a sterilization procedure that closes off a woman's Fallopian tubes.
And just to be very clear, you did not consent to be sterilized?
No, Miss, I never gave my consent for them to operate on me. I couldn't speak Spanish well then, and I only went to school until the third grade. Because of this and because I was humble, they took advantage of me.
Alberto Fujimori led Peru from 1990 to 2000. It was a decade marked by his brutal fight against communist insurgents. But it was also a period of social and economic development for Peru. As part of that social development, Fujimori announced an intensive family planning campaign at the 1995 United Nations World Conference on Women.
María Cecilia Villegas:
Twenty five percent of women had more than 4 children in a poor country where we were a very poor country. Poverty was around sixty eight percent.
Peruvian María Cecilia Villegas researched the country's family planning strategy while studying International Development at Johns Hopkins University. She says it was a valuable program.
Women were having more kids than they wanted to have. There was a lot of maternal mortality. So this was designed for poor women to be able to access the same health services that rich women are able to access.
From 1996 to 2000, millions of condoms, birth control pills, and other contraceptive methods were provided. And 280,000 tubal ligations were performed. But almost from the start, reports of aggressive government sterilization quotas, and lack of women's consent, began to emerge, particularly from indigenous areas. There were also allegations that some women died because of unsanitary conditions or lack of post-operative care. The United States had been funding the program, but cut back support in early 1998, in response to these reports.
Representative Todd Tiahrt:
Thank you Mr. Chairman. Women were coerced into sterilization.
Congress also passed legislation to strengthen the rules of consent and forbid numerical targets anywhere the U.S. Was providing family planning aid. Peruvian officials investigated at the time but only validated a small number of complaints. The program was ended in 2000 when Fujimori was forced to resign the Presidency. But in recent years, journalist Melissa Goytizolo has re-opened the story, gathering new accounts of forced sterilizations from women around the country.
I didn't know the magnitude of the case and that it had occurred in all corners of Peru. There's too many sterilized women who lived through the same patterns in the coast, mountains, and in the jungle. It was directed toward poor indigenous women who couldn't read and write, many with a very low level of education.
Goytizolo uncovered documents including this 1997 letter from a regional health official to a hospital director. It announced a campaign to carry out 250 sterilizations over a four day period, in coordination with the National Family Planning Program.
We complained to the prosecutor's office because this was against the health and security of women.
Hernando Cevallos, now a congressman, was head of that region's medical association at the time.
The government was telling different health establishments that 'this week you have to arrive at a goal of 100, 150, or 200 people successfully sterilized.' This was an order that came from the Regional Health Ministry and, even higher, from the Peruvian Health Ministry. The problem during this period was that the goals they designed did not allow for the providing of adequate information to the patients to understand what they would be subject to.
Meanwhile in the early 2000s, Rute Zuñiga began hearing about more and more women like her. She founded a local association of forcibly sterilized women and joined forces with other similar groups that were forming around the country. Together they pushed their government to recognize their suffering. In 2009, Peruvian courts began to provide a measure of justice for abuses during the Fujimori years. The former President was found guilty of crimes against his own citizens, carried out during his fight against domestic terrorism. But the forced sterilization allegations were not brought to trial.
Every year, when we presented our cases, they shelved them. Another year, and they shelved them. We've been stuck in this effort.
Finally, in 2016, Peru established a national registry of victims of forced sterilization to officially identify the number of cases. More than 6,000 women would eventually be accepted from all across the country. The registry granted special health coverage and most crucially, assigned lawyers to the women, with the expressed intent of guaranteeing them access to justice, including helping them give testimony to prosecutors.
In October, criminal charges were finally filed by the National Prosecutor's office, accusing Alberto Fujimori and three of his former Health Ministers of grave human rights violations in the deaths of five women, and serious injury to more than 1300 others.
The 250-page criminal complaint builds a case that in their urgency to meet ambitious family planning goals, the men created a climate for forced sterilizations. Included as evidence is the letter revealed by journalist Goytizolo and these 1997 memos sent directly to Fujimori by his Health Minister. They show that the government had a goal that year to sterilize 150,000 women and kept a running tally toward meeting that target.
Marino Costa Bauer:
There's absolutely no grounds, no grounds to charge us on anything.
Marino Costa Bauer is the author of those memos. He and another accused Health Minister, Alejandro Aguinaga, agreed to meet with me. They served consecutively from 1996 to 2000. They take credit for Peru's declining death rates related to childbirth during that period.
The reality is that maternal mortality decreased by almost 40% and child mortality decreased by 35%. These were terrible conditions in our country. I don't think there's a minister who could stand by and not act.
They deny forcing local doctors to meet quotas. They say that there was pressure to undertake more procedures.
By us? By Dr. Alejandro and me?
By the health ministry.
No. No way.
You say never.
They say they addressed complaints as soon as they arose, and provide as evidence a survey that suggests that by the end of the program at least, most women who were sterilized understood what was happening.
92% of them declared that before they were intervened, they were informed that they would not be able to have any more children after this operation,
But that is still several thousand women who say their rights were violated.
Well lets see, I mean I am very sympathetic with them but that's not because we ordered it. Absolutely not. That's because at some point along the line, somebody made mistakes. And if there have been mistakes, well investigate those mistakes, stop investigating us.
Congressman Hernando Cevallos isn't buying the former Health Ministers' argument.
The doctors that worked in the health establishments conducting the operations, many of them were appointed by the Health Ministry where they received their pay, and they were under orders of the Ministry. This was part of an organized system.
Today, former President Fujimori is 80 years old and in poor health. He is in prison, serving time for his previous convictions. His party still has seats in congress but is no longer in the majority. Because of that, says journalist Melissa Goytizolo, the women's case has a chance to advance.
This is the first time that it could go to trial and the accused might finally see their day in court. The trial will take many years, but I think that they've reached an important phase because support of Fujimori is on its way down. If they still had the power they had before, this wouldn't be happening.
Meanwhile, there is one last hurdle for the women who say they were sterilized without their consent. A judge must approve the prosecutors' charges in order for trials to begin. The women are keeping the pressure on, meeting with Ministry of Justice officials to discuss their continuing health needs and potential charges from new criminal investigations. Rute Zuñiga says she finally feels supported by her government and has some hope.
They are changing, and therefore we in the organization are very strengthened by this. We want to see that those who are responsible are found culpable. This is what we want.
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