“We must end forced sterilizations of HIV positive women. No one should be forced to undergo unwanted medical procedures. It’s non-negotiable. My body. My womb. My rights.”
She is strong, fearless, and charismatic. She emanates energy and power. She is smart and sensible. She is fierce and does not beat around the bushes. They respect her and they admire her. She empowers them. She tells them to fight for their rights. She urges them to raise their voices for the voiceless the same way she has raised her voice for them. They listen to her because she was the first one to listen to them. She is warm and respectful. Her laughter is contagious. Her personality is captivating and inspiring. People love being around her and she loves being around people. She is a mother, a wife, an advocate. She lives positively despite being HIV-positive and despite having lost two of her four children. One of them died of HIV/AIDS. Her two children, who are alive and well, gave her hope and courage to live. She is a self-educated village woman who is determined to change the world. They call her ‘Big Mama’ and ‘Mama Jeni’. She is Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet – an amazing women’s rights activist I had a privilege of meeting yesterday in Windhoek, Namibia.
I sat with Jeni and her staff (‘the young ones’ as she calls them) outside her modest office filled with outreach materials, posters, and photos. We spent over two hours discussing her organization’s signature program “End Forced Sterilizations of HIV Positive Women.” The program was launched by the Namibian Women’s Health Network and its partners in 2008, after three HIV-positive participants of the Young Women Dialog revealed that they had been coercively sterilized. “The doctors punished them for being responsible,” said Jeni not hiding her frustration. “The women wanted their children to be HIV-negative so they disclosed their positive HIV status and enrolled in the PMTCT program [prevention of mother to child transmission],” Jeni continued. Despite giving birth to perfectly healthy babies, the doctors arbitrarily took their choice to have more children away, leaving them dejected and hopeless. Jeni spoke about her work with passion and enthusiasm, emphasizing that there is absolutely no medical reason for sterilizing HIV-positive women without their free will.
Experts emphasize that PMTCT programs are extremely successful. When an HIV-positive mother receives anti-retroviral drugs during pregnancy, labor, and delivery; has her baby by C-section; and avoids breastfeeding, the chance of passing the infection to her baby falls to less than 2% (fewer than 2 in 100). The newborn babies are also given treatment after birth to protect them. According to UNICEF and Namibia’s Global AIDS Response Progress Report 2012, Namibia is approaching universal access of ARVs (antiretroviral therapy) for PMTCT. With relatively little loss to follow-up, the coverage of ARVs for PMTCT for the mother and infant has reached 90-93% and 88% respectively. UNAIDS country profile for Namibia shows a steady decline of new child infections since the mid-2000.
After meeting with Jeni, Ivy, Laimi, Leni, and other young leaders of the NWHN, I was introduced to ten women who are the face of forced and coerced sterilization cases in Namibia. We prayed together, we dined together, and we began a tough, yet necessary conversation about their painful life journeys. I will have an enormous privilege to chat with them in smaller focus groups and in one-on-one meetings next week. I am extremely grateful for their courage to speak up in an effort to ensure that these despicable violations of basic human rights come swiftly to an end. “You are talking on behalf of all of us,” said Jeni explaining the purpose of my study to the women. “We want our voices to be heard!” she exclaimed. “We need to cry out loud like infants who need to be fed to survive,” she concluded.
Please join me in spreading a word about the incredible work the NWHN and others are doing to prevent forced and coerced sterilizations and abortions of HIV-positive and disabled women in Namibia and around the world. The slogan of the campaign is “MY BODY. MY WOMB. MY RIGHTS.” To start and learn more, please visit NWHN website, become friends with NWHN on Facebook, and join “End Forced Sterilization of HIV Positive Women” campaign on CAUSES.COM. More to come.