Uganda’s record in combating HIV/AIDS has been much better than many other African countries, but there are a growing number of women who are claiming that doctors, some in government-run hospitals, are sterilising women with the disease. It doesn’t need to be pointed out how much of a violation of women’s liberty this is but what the revelations do do is leave a massive stain on the country. It it unclear as to whether this was the isolated actions of a few doctors or was instructed by the Ugandan government. This may be difficult to read.
When it comes to the issue of HIV/AIDS Uganda has historically had a good record. In the 1990s the government launched the ‘ABC’ campaign which encouraged people to do one of three things: Abstinent; Be monogamous; or use a Condom. As a result of this programme the level of HIV/AIDS in the country has declined, but that isn’t to say there haven’t been problems. For instance, many fundamentalist Christian groups have been hostile to promoting the idea of using condoms, and have essentially used the spectre of getting AIDS to scare people into conforming to socially conservative sexual attitudes. Obviously these problems exist and organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are right to call out these views. However the news coming out of Uganda in the last few days, that women are being sterilised without their consent, is unbelievable.
To give this story a human face let’s look at the story of a victim. Ida, which is not the woman’s real name, went to a hospital in Kampala. She was six months pregnant but began feeling some pain in her abdomen. Ida became worried about the health of the baby and decided to go to a government-run hospital in the nation’s capital. It is standard procedure for all pregnant women in Uganda to be screen for HIV. Ida went on to have a miscarriage and was later told that she was HIV positive.
According to the woman’s testimony, which was reported by Reuters, the doctors told her that they were going to “clean her womb”. She said that the doctors almost exclusively spoke in English, which she couldn’t really understand, and that after preliminary conversations the doctors took her to one side for treatment. When she woke up after the operation there was a dressing on her stomach but because of her poor English skills she was unable to ask questions.
After a few months of trying to become pregnant once again, Ida went to a different hospital to find out what was going on. The doctors told her that she was unable to conceive children because her fallopian tubes without her knowledge.
This is a horrible story and unfortunately there are reports coming out across Uganda of similar incidents, but there are few things to point out. Firstly, the fact that another government hospital told Ida that she had been sterilised would suggest that there no government instructed code of practice. And secondly, studies have shown that this form of sterilisation reduces sexual desire and makes sex less pleasurable. This would also imply that the repressive sexual attitudes promoted by some conservative Christians in the country may be an underlying cause.
Women’s rights in Africa are frequently undermined as structural sexism and oppressive attitudes towards sex remain widespread. As I said it is unclear what is causing this spate of mutilations but the fact that the sterilisations are being done in a way that reduces sexual pleasure makes me think that the commonly-held religious views of many people have played a role. This story needs to be covered so that politicians and activists around the world gain an awareness of what is going on.
Uganda has made some excellent steps in recent years in dealing with HIV/AIDS but if conservative attitudes towards sex remain unchallenged the epidemic could get worse. If HIV/AIDS became less widespread there would be fewer instances of sterlisation, which although won’t stop the problem would reduce the opportunities for these criminals. More easily accessible contraception would reduce HIV/AIDS but this will only happen if these Puritanical approaches to sex are challenged.