On April 22, more than a thousand people marched along the streets of Taksim Square in Istanbul to demand full economic, political, and human rights for women. Many demonstrators highlighted the problem of forced and coerced sterilization, which disproportionately affects poor and marginalized women.
As illustrated by the Campaign to Stop Torture in Health Care—which views forced sterilization as one of the most egregious examples of degrading and abusive treatment in health care—this coercive practice deprives women of their agency over their reproductive choices, denying their fundamental human rights and reproductive justice. Demonstrators in Taksim Square held signs bearing the phrase “Forced Sterilisation is Torture” and called for an end to this gross violation of human rights.
The march and demonstration marked the culmination of the 12th AWID International Forum on Women’s Rights and Development. At the forum, we spoke to many participants who suspected that coercive sterilization practices were happening in their countries. Forced sterilization happens when sterilization is performed without the woman’s knowledge or without the opportunity for her to provide informed consent. Women are coerced into sterilization when financial incentives or necessities are offered in exchange for submitting to the procedure, inadequate or false information is provided before consent is obtained, or consent is used as a requirement for access to essential services.
Though the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture has established that forced and coerced sterilizations constitute torture and ill-treatment and the World Medical Association has also called upon medical practitioners to halt the practice of involuntary sterilizations, the practice remains pervasive globally. Cases of forced and coerced sterilizations have recently been documented among women living with HIV in Kenya and Southern Africa, among women with disabilities in Australia, as part of population control programs in Uzbekistan and India, and among transgender people in most countries that require sterilization in order to legally change gender.
In many parts of the world, women remain silent about involuntary sterilization because of the cultural importance of bearing children and the stigma attached to “barren women.” It is for this reason that so many women and men joined us in Istanbul to demand an end to this ugly practice. But action cannot end there. Women must speak to others in their communities about these egregious practices to break the silence and implore their governments to act to stop forced sterilization. Women’s reproductive choices are their own and it is imperative that governments do not rob women of these human rights.