Forced sterilisations: Health dept backtracks on reparation promise as contradictions emerge over task team's work

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Msibi discovered in 2016 that she had undergone a partial hysterectomy – allegedly without her knowledge and consent – by the doctors who had delivered her first child in 2005
Msibi discovered in 2016 that she had undergone a partial hysterectomy – allegedly without her knowledge and consent – by the doctors who had delivered her first child in 2005

Several victims of forced and coerced sterilisation are growing increasingly frustrated about the lack of communication from the National Department of Health (NDOH).

These women were promised redress in November 2020 by former health minister Zweli Mkhize for the trauma they have endured since being sterilised without their knowledge, or without informed consent.

It's been more than two years since the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) published a damning report that exposed the sterilisation of these women. For some of the initial complainants, the wait has been even longer. Many of these women had grown hopeful once the report was launched, especially when Mkhize declared that the department would take the matter seriously and ensure redress if any breach of human rights was found by the independent task team he had appointed.

Led by gynaecologist and UKZN professor Dr Motshidisi Sebitloane, the task team was asked to probe the allegations outlined in the CGE report, and to carry out the CGE's recommendations for reparation, including physical, psychosocial, and financial compensation.

Interdepartmental contradictions

According to several sources, the task team has not yet concluded its work on the matter and is still in talks with the CGE and the NDOH.

However, this contradicts comments made in February by Health Minister Joe Phaahla, who announced that the "independent committee" had concluded its work. Phaahla was responding to a parliamentary question from EFF MP Naledi Chirwa, who asked about the current state of the probe.

In further contradiction to what the department has promised, including a look into financial compensation where warranted, Phaahla announced that, to his knowledge, "... there was no commitment from the department to compensate alleged victims".

The minister – who neglected to mention obstetric violence or forced sterilisation in his budget vote speech earlier this month – also noted that, even with the department's, "... best endeavours... the detailed clinical histories of the women from the original group of complainants could not be adequately verified", offering, "... no grounds to proceed [with] compensation at this stage".

This is despite the obvious concern that almost all of the victims' medical records - barring the documents of four victims - could not be located, which exposes additional concerns about NDOH operations at a grassroots level.

According to the CGE report, some files were too old and had to be destroyed, some contained insufficient details, and some were simply lost.

CGE spokesperson Javu Baloyi, who was hesitant to offer a comprehensive update on the redress proceedings, told News24 that the minister's answer to Chirwa's question was not what the CGE knew to be true about the task team's ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, Dr Manala Makua, the NDOH Chief Director of Women's, Maternal and Reproductive Health, told News24 that the director general's office would soon be releasing a press statement on the matter.

The fight for redress

The CGE's original report exposed the plight of 48 HIV-positive women, who were forcefully sterilised or coerced into sterilisation without informed consent at 15 public hospitals in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. Following the launch of the report, dozens more women from other provinces came forward with similar allegations, some of them not HIV-positive.

Many of the afflicted women have formed advocacy groups and joined the fight for redress. They are represented by their respective lawyers, primarily from the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) and the Women's Legal Centre (WLC).

Lawyer Jody Fredericks, who now represents the ICW, laid the first complaint with the CGE in 2015 on behalf of Her Rights Initiative and the ICW. She represented the WLC at the time.

'The women didn't hold back'

Part of the CGE report's recommendations was that the NDOH facilitate dialogue with the complainants and pave an appropriate road to redress. Honouring that, the NDOH last year hosted 130 complainants, which included the original 48 complainants and an additional 82 complainants, who were not mentioned in the CGE report.

Held at the Elangeni Hotel, in KwaZulu-Natal on 3 and 4 June 2021, the conference – spearheaded by Sebitloane's task team – offered the complainants a platform to share their stories with the group at large. The group included the task team members, a CGE representative, the complainants' respective lawyers and EFF representatives who were overseeing the matter on their party's behalf.

According to Fredericks, the conference was "extremely emotional". She told News24 that the women shared their experiences with the Ministerial Committee, detailing their trauma and how the unlawful sterilisation procedures had affected their daily lives. This echoed the findings of the CGE report, which found that the women experienced a grave violation of human rights, including their right to health, bodily integrity and dignity.

Fredericks said:

"The women didn't hold back on the details, which gave the committee a deeper understanding of the complainants' needs."

She added that the proceedings, overall, have been amicable to date. She further explained that the redress process stemmed from the CGE's recommendations and was not a civil litigation case. As such, the parties have been working towards achieving a mutually agreed way forward, with the complainants awaiting the final reparation packages.

"If they want to institute a civil case, they will have to approach the court. But it has not reached that point yet," said Fredericks.

A proposed way forward

Once the conference was concluded, task team committee member and lawyer Zinhle Zondi shared with attendants a summary of the issues raised, as well as the proposed interventions. These included several reparative measures that would (among other interventions):

  • Address emotional, psychological, and physical trauma;
  • Hold medical staff accountable for performing forced or coerced sterilisation without informed consent; and
  • Compensate victims for pain, suffering and future loss (with reference, in particular, to financial support for education and shelter).

According to Fredericks, the Ministerial Committee wanted to meet the individual needs of the women, after listening to their grievances.

She told News24: 

"They were thoughtful in their approach and have expressed that they are committed to restoring the dignity of the complainants."

She added: "We weren't told that there wouldn't be financial compensation."

Initially, the task team had offered to announce the details of the redress packages by 15 July 2021. This, however, did not happen, with the rise of the Delta variant, the KwaZulu-Natal riots, and a change in administration (marred by Mkhize's corruption scandal) cited as hindering proceedings.

Clinical interventions already under way

In the meantime, clinical interventions have got under way for the more urgent cases. This was confirmed to News24 by Sebitloane, the task team head.

According to Fredericks, the clinical interventions started soon after the conference in June 2021, seeing to the needs of women who needed medical redress that was time-sensitive.

This includes survivor, activist and mother Bongie Msibi, 34, who has embarked on a surrogacy journey under the guidance of Pretoria gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Zozo Nene. Nene is also a member of the the NDOH-appointed task team.

Msibi discovered in 2016 that she had undergone a partial hysterectomy – allegedly without her knowledge and consent – by the doctors who had delivered her first child in 2005. Still without sufficient information from the birthing team at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital, Msibi has been actively seeking justice on behalf of herself and other victims of obstetric violence.

Despite being one of the beneficiaries of urgent clinical intervention, Msibi expressed unhappiness about the NDOH's lack of action, and believes the CGE has not held the department accountable since the launch of the report two years ago.

She told News24 that, as a crucial starting point, the health professionals implicated need to be investigated. She added that psychosocial treatment, which has already got under way for Johannesburg-based victims, is insufficient. This is especially true for women less privileged than Msibi who, for instance, are reliant on public transport to get them to the hospital to receive the necessary support.

"As a Section 9 institution, the CGE is supposed to be there, standing up for people. But why do they even exist? Why does the Human Rights Council exist? This is an infringement of my reproductive right as a woman and my human right as a member of this democratic country. I'm very let down," said Msibi.


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