HIV self-test. Picture: 123RF/PIXNOO
HIV self-test. Picture: 123RF/PIXNOO

An inquiry into the forced sterilisation of dozens of HIV-positive SA pregnant women said on Monday their rights had been breached, and called for government action.

The investigation was launched after two women’s rights organisations approached the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) in 2015 with 48 documented cases of coerced sterilisation. The CGE obtained sworn affidavits from the complainants on the alleged procedures.

“All the women who had lodged the complaint were black women who were mostly HIV-positive,” CGE CEO Keketso Maema said in a report released on Monday.

“Just before giving birth … they were coerced or forced to sign forms that they later learnt through various means were consent forms allegedly permitting the hospital to sterilise them,” Maema said. The documented incidents took place between 2002 and 2015.

Investigators found that hospital staff threatened to deny women medical attention if they did not sign the paperwork. Some of the complainants said they were given the forms in moments of “extreme pain” during which they could not fully grasp the content, the report said. All of the women gave birth through caesarean section. Many fell into depression after finding out that they could no longer conceive, and some have been left by their partners.

‘Don’t ask questions’

One victim told investigators she only found out her fallopian tubes had been cut a few years after giving birth, when she went to a private doctor to inquire about her lack of fertility. At the time of giving birth, she was kept in hospital for an unusually long period to treat an infected caesarean wound.

“She … was never told what exactly had happened to her,” the report said, quoting the affidavit.

Another complainant was asked to sign forms, and when she asked the nurse what they were for, she said the nurse replied: “You HIV people don’t ask questions when you make babies. Why are you asking questions now? You must be closed up because you HIV people like making babies and it just annoys us. Just sign the forms, so you can go to theatre,” the nurse said, according to the report.

The commission concluded that the women suffered several rights violations and were subjected to “degrading treatment”. It also accused medical staff of breaching their duty of care. The report, which has been sent to the national department of health, advises the government to review sterilisation paperwork. A cooling-off period between the signing of consent forms and the operation itself was also recommended.

The health ministry’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The number of people living with HIV in SA increased to 7.97-million in 2019, from about 4.64-million in 2002, according to government statistics. About 13.5% of the population was found to be HIV positive in 2019.