The broken lives of women sterilized by force in South Africa

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The earth sank under his feet four years ago, when Bongekile Msibi, the South African mother of a 15-year-old teenager, knew that she was unable to have a second child because she no longer had a uterus.

“I didn’t understand what the doctor was saying,” recalls this 32-year-old mother, trying to contain her tears. “How was that possible? He had a daughter, which meant he had a uterus.”

Bongekile Msibi initiated an investigation to understand the inconceivable. She took her naturally to the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, a huge public institution in Johannesburg, where she gave birth to her daughter in 2005.

There, in 2016, an obstetrician explained that his uterus had been removed after giving birth.

Bongekile Msibi is one of 48 women who underwent forced sterilization between 2002 and 2015 in South Africa, according to a survey published in late February. In this report, the Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa (CGE) denounces the “cruel, barbaric, inhuman and degrading treatment” inflicted on women, all black, at the time of giving birth by caesarean section in public hospitals in the country.

Most were HIV positive. No Bongekile Msibi. But he was 17 when his only daughter was born. He was a minor, therefore vulnerable.

The health personnel “took advantage of the situation, played God,” denounces the young woman in an interview with the AFP. “They thought they were capable of doing what they wanted, when lying down, inert.”

In 2016, the obstetrician told him that sterilization had been decided to save his life. Bongekile Msibi doesn’t believe it.

South African laws prohibit forced sterilization, but doctors do not need the patient’s consent when their life is in danger.

In most of the cases identified by the CGE, says Tamara Mathebula, at the head of this commission, health professionals explain to their patients that the operation was necessary “because you are HIV positive, because you have tuberculosis, because you think you have too many children. Look at yourself, you are poor, you cannot be allowed to continue. “

But “these are not reasons to ligate tubes or remove the uterus,” argues Mathebula.

Women would also have been threatened not to receive medical attention if they did not sign the documents authorizing the irreversible operation, while others were forced to sign them at times of “extreme pain,” according to the CGE.

However, for Bongekile Msibi there was no signed consent in 2005. Determined to clarify the issue of her infertility, she undertook a long battle. He wrote to the health authorities, to the policy makers and organized a sit-in.

The authorities “lack empathy. They are totally insensitive,” says Bongekile Msibi, from his flirtatious living room in a suburb of Johannesburg.

“I can’t cross my arms and accept that I don’t have a uterus. I don’t even know why,” he adds, “I feel like I’m incomplete.”

Following the publication of the CGE report, the Ministry of Health agreed to meet with the complainants shortly. A little comfort for the victims.

On this sensitive issue, the ministry is not talkative. “A response from the CGE is expected for a joint statement,” says its spokesman, Lwazi Manzi.

Amputee women have problems in their private lives. Some were “abandoned by their husbands because they were no longer useful for reproduction,” explains Tamara Mathebula.

Shortly after discovering his infertility, Bongekile Msibi and his partner separated. “I wanted children and I couldn’t give them to them,” he explains.

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