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Namibian women were sterilized without consent, judge rules

From Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
July 31, 2012 -- Updated 1618 GMT (0018 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The ruling is the first in a series of cases filed against the Namibian government
  • Attorneys allege that public hospitals sterilized at least 18 HIV-positive women
  • "The nurse said to me, 'I think they are going to close you,'" one woman says
  • Authorities deny accusations that sterilizations are a government policy

(CNN) -- A judge ruled Monday that three HIV-positive women in Namibia were sterilized without their informed consent, their lawyer said.

But the high court judge said the women did not provide enough evidence to prove that they were sterilized because they were HIV-positive, according to attorney Amon Ngavetene.

The judge has not yet decided on awarding damages in the case, said Ngavetene, coordinator of the AIDS Law Unit at the Legal Assistance Centre. The women were seeking 1.2 million Namibian dollars (about $150,000) in compensation.

The center is representing 18 women, alleging that public hospitals sterilized them without their informed consent.

Namibian authorities have denied accusations that forced sterilizations have been a matter of government policy.

Emilia Handumbo, one of the HIV-positive women suing the government, told CNN last year that she was given documents to sign while she was in labor and about to give birth in a public hospital.

Watch: Forced sterilization in Africa

"I thought they were papers for the caesarian, but then the nurse said to me, 'I think they are going to close you,'" she said.

Thanks to anti-AIDS drugs, Handumbo gave birth to a healthy, HIV-negative baby.

But then the letters "BTL" appeared in her hospital file. The letters, she later learned, stood for bilateral tubal ligation, a form of sterilization.

Attorney Corinna van Wyk said Handumbo is one of many women who are victims of a broken health system.

"Doctors are taking advantage of them," van Wyk said.

'The damage is permanent, obviously, not only physically. These women are discriminated against culturally because they can no longer bear children," she said.

Human rights groups say that the high profile nature of Monday's case has done little to change the conduct of some health care workers in Namibia, alleging that more HIV-positive women who claim they were forcibly sterilized are still coming forward.

A study from the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS and the Namibia Women's Health Network unearthed 40 cases in three of the country's regions.

AIDS activist Jenny Gatsi-Mallet, who helped conduct the research, said doctors working for the state have told her they were just following guidelines.

"They are saying that these guidelines came into being when AIDS first came into the country, and I think that was in 2001, and it was a directive that says any woman who tests positive for HIV should be sterilized straight away," Gatsi-Mallet said.

But Dr. Norbert Forster, deputy permanent secretary of Namibia's health ministry, told CNN last year that the sterilization of HIV-positive women was "not at all" an official policy.

"That is not our position," he said, adding that forcing women to sign consent documents "would not be in line" with the government's policy.

Peruvian authorities reopen investigation into forced sterilization

U.S. hearing explores history of forced sterilization

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