“'How can you have so many children? You are like a guinea pig,' they told me. 'Do you have money to take care of them and educate them? What were you thinking having so many children?' That’s what they said, they hunted me down like a criminal,” recalls the cracked voice of a woman speaking in Quechua.
“Because of that they took me to Anta, they sterilized me there, I don’t remember anything, nothing about what they did to me. They took me by myself, like a criminal. No one knew, not even my husband,” the woman continued.
This anonymous testimony is part of a tapestry of suffering that disproportionately targeted Peruvian Indigenous women in the late 1990s as part of a systematic sterilization policy under the country’s former dictator Alberto Fujimori.
In total, close to 300,000 people were estimated to have been sterilized under the program, 272,000 are believed to be women. Thousands of women were sterilized without consent, often pressured, coerced and even physically restrained by medical professionals. Others have told harrowing stories of how they had entered medical clinics for check-ups and minor procedures but left sterilized.
Twenty-five years on from Fujimori’s military-supported coup that gave him overarching powers, an interactive documentary project is giving victims a voice through technology. Drawing inspiration from Inca and Andean knotted ropes known as a Quipu, Project Quipu allows users to click through nodes of more than 150 intimate testimonies.
A free telephone line has been linked to the project's website, where so far, over 13,000 people from around the world have been able to listen the personal stories from victims in Spanish and English. Those who listen in can also send a message back to the victims, which can then be played back on the phone line for the victims to hear.
"Hi, I’m Sandra, I live in London and I wanted to tell you that I have listened to your testimonies and I wanted to thank each and everyone for having the courage and willingness to share your stories, so other people, in other places in the world know what happened to you,” the voice said in Spanish.
The project’s website also takes donations to help support the women’s organizations in Peru that work to advance local development. Users can also sign a petition to President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to demand a reparations program for the victims of the chilling state policy.
Sterilizations have a dark and controversial history in the country, and efforts to bring justice and representation to thousands of victims who live in disenfranchised and resource-scarec communities has been a slow road, but projects like Quipu are helping to change that through historical memory.
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Rocio Silva-Santisteban, former head of Peru’s National Coordinator of Human Rights, explained to teleSUR that the issue of forced sterilizations in the country remains a very controversial because it involves policies focused on certain populations, the cooptation of medical professionals to carry out sterilizations and a host of other policies that were implemented under Fujimori’s rule.
Fujimori justified the program, known as Voluntary Surgical Contraception, on the premise that it would help to alleviate poverty — by literally preventing poor people from being born. Fujimori has been in jail since 2007 on charges of corruption and human rights abuses.
Several state investigations into the sterilizations have been opened and closed, leaving victims without recourse. Much to the disappointment of victims and human rights organizations, a ruling from January 2014 said that there was not enough evidence to maintain an investigation into Fujimori’s role in the sterilizations, which he still maintains were voluntary or undertaken by rouge doctors. Courts also ruled that three of Fujimori's health ministers were not responsible for the sterilization program.
Silva-Santisteban noted that justice and continued to be a slow process but that certain initiatives have helping victims. For example, the Peruvian government created a national database for the thousands of victims, allowing them to request that their cases be officially recognized without the need for going through the court system.
Silva-Santisteban also noted that the National Coordinator of Human Rights continued to help by providing important monitoring and advocacy for victims. She added that spreading awareness about the sterilization abuses through communicating victim’s stories can help people understand “that they were policies against humanity in which the rights of women did not matter, because they are Indigenous but also because they are women.”
For the majority of victims that live in remote and poor communities, getting their voices heard is further complicated by the fact that many of the women cannot read and write and often speak the minority Indigenous language of Quechua. They also continue to be subject to ongoing and entrenched discrimination.
“Peru is a deeply racist and misogynistic society. The victims are poor indigenous women. They lack political power, so their demands for justice are forgotten by the rest of Peruvian society,” Jo-Marie Burt a professor from George Mason University who has written extensively about justice and human rights in Latin America, told teleSUR.
Burt explained that sadly after around 20 years, the issue of forced sterilization and moving towards justice continues to be politicized, particularly during election campaigns, “when politicians curry favor with voters by saying they will ensure that the perpetrators — material and intellectual — will be prosecuted.”
She added that both current President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski and his predecessor, Ollanta Humala had run on these promises, but abandoned them when taking office. Indeed, both presidents ran in consecutive elections against Keiko Fujimori, daughter of Alberto Fujimori, who has downplayed the sterilizations and even suggested that that many not have even happened.
“It was a government program developed and applied by the Fujimori government. To suggest that a handful of rogue doctors systematically sterilized 300,000 people is absurd, to say the least,” Burt continued.
Keiko, along with Alberto’s son, Kenji and other “Fujimorista” politicians still have considerable power in the country, and their Popular Force political party enjoys a majority in Peru’s Congress. “They continue to do everything possible to avoid this case from advancing in the courts,” Burt added.
Burt went on to explain some of the legal implications of being able to prosecute Fujimori over the sterilization, particularly over his extradition agreements with Chile, where he fled after allegations of his involvement in corruption and human rights abuses surfaced. She added that it would not be impossible for Peru to be able to approach the Chilean Supreme Court to prosecute him.
“It’s a question of political will," she said. "If the Peruvian state had the political will to prosecute those responsible for forced sterilizations, it could do so. The political will is absent, tragically.”
Burt also said that the reparation payment for forced sterilization victims and for those who suffered in Peruvian government’s conflict with the Shining Path militant group has also been “frustratingly slow and bureaucratic,” as “successive Peruvian governments have dragged their heels” and continued to use reparations for political benefits instead of providing proper reparations for the victims.
As justice continues to evade victims and Peruvian politics continues to stall and politicise the sterilizations, many victims have died in waiting. The Quipu project is just one small part of a continuing fight that has become increasingly about political will and representation.