Judge in Namibia Rules that State Hospitals Sterilized Women Without Consent
Wednesday, August 1, 2012 3:35 PM

Namibia’s high court ruled in favor of three HIV-positive women who claimed that they were sterilized without their consent at a state hospital.  As Judge Elton Hoff read his judgment from the courthouse in Namibia’s capital,  women’s rights activists wore black t-shirts with the words “Non negotiable: my body, my womb, my rights.”

Three women brought a suit against the Republic of Namibia alleging that they had undergone sterilization procedures without giving informed consent during caesarean deliveries in state hospitals between 2005 and 2007.  The women also claimed that they were targeted for the procedures because they were HIV-positive, a practice that some health rights activists allege is increasingly common in sub-Saharan African countries.
In Judge Hoff’s judgment, he agreed that the hospital workers failed to get the women’s informed consent before sterilizing them and that the manner in which the staff tried to get consent was “highly undesirable.”  He said that the staff did not speak the women’s language, Oshiwambo, and that the consent forms handed to the women during labor contained “unintelligible acronyms,” including “BTL,” which stands for bilateral tubal ligation.  At least one of the women was led to believe that she could only undergo the caesarean, after four days in labor, if she signed the form, he said. “There could not have been counseling under those circumstances.  No woman should have to sign forms in the height of labor,” Hoff said.
The judge blamed the hospital’s poor record keeping for its lack of defense, saying “There is no indication in hospital records that plaintiff No. 3 had given her consent at any time before the surgery.”  He acknowledged constraints that they face, but called on hospitals to provide information in all necessary languages.
“This marks an important step forward for patients' rights,” Amon Ngavetene, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, said. “It means there is a need for health practitioners to look at ethical issues and record keeping.”
Despite his judgment in their favor, Judge Hoff did not award damages to the plaintiffs, though he did say that the matter was up for discussion.  He also did not accept the women’s claim that they were targeted as a result of their HIV-positive statuses, saying that the plaintiffs did not sufficiently prove this bias.

“This case highlights the fact that the government is responsible for the actions of the people it employs, it is expected to employ enough people and the right people,” Ngavetene said.

Compiled from: Smith, Alex Duval, "Namibia court rules HIV-positive women sterilised without consent," The Guardian, (30 July 2012).