With Keiko Fujimori leading the polls in Sunday’s Peruvian presidential run-off, Anne-Laure White looks at one of the darkest legacies of her father’s presidency: the forced sterilisation of tens of thousands of Peruvians, mostly of campesino and indigenous origin.
For four years, low-income men and women around Peru were routinely harassed, threatened, and in some cases, unknowingly operated on by medical professionals. By 2000, the operations had left largely unhealed wounds in the bodies and minds of the over 300,000 people forcibly sterilised.
“Now, we are not OK,” said a victim of the state’s population control policy. “All of the forcibly sterilised women, we are not fine.” Despite the many cases of lasting health complications and additional economic disempowerment, most continue to carry this trauma without medical or legal reparations, without even the acknowledgement that the operations that so dramatically changed their lives happened at all. “We are asking for help. With a job, with anything. They [the government] should help us, not one but all.”
Launched in 1996, Alberto Fujimori’s Reproductive Health and Family Planning Programme initially garnered support from both domestic and international women’s rights groups. Doctors and medics received benefits from the government for conducting these coercive sterilisations. Six years into what would be a decade of authoritarian governing, he declared a “state of emergency”, correlating such measures with poverty reduction, something that should have made the eugenicist nature of the project more apparent. Fujimori’s widely disseminated propaganda advertising the introduction of voluntary sterilisation as a legalised contraceptive that would help low-income women and their families was successful.
Many in and outside the country were eager to extend the benefit of the doubt to the president, who they excused for governing under exceptionally challenging circumstances. Indeed during Fujimori’s trial in 2007, almost one in four Peruvians continued to admire him for bringing stability during a period of violence and unrest. The memory of bombings, assassinations, and kidnappings of guerrilla group, The Shining Path, which was responsible for about 50% of the deaths during the nearly 20-year period of inner conflict, has left some Peruvians unwilling to criticise the brutal government that suppressed it. Before the trial, Peruvian political analyst Jorge Bruce told reporters: “The ugly truth of Fujimori was the tacit support that many Peruvians had for his tactics. This judgment will be of him but also of our society.”
Caught in the middle of military and guerrilla violence were indigenous Peruvians, many of whom were low income and some of whom did not speak Spanish, therefore having limited access to media or legal representation in an already repressive regime. Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported that three in four people killed between 1980-2000 were Quechua-speaking. And in the case of the forced sterilisations, Amnesty International says that Fujimori’s “population control policy specifically targeted indigenous and rural women from the most low income sectors of society,” a fact that made it all the more difficult for the forced sterilisations to be acknowledged by mainstream media.
Testimonials from victims of the forced sterilisations are now being gathered as part of the Ministry for Justice and Human Right’s national registry, which will compile accounts from forcibly sterilised people and provide them with access to medical and legal aid. It is an important step towards understanding the scale of people impacted. It does not, however, guarantee any legal justice, and with constant archiving and re-opening of the judicial process, legal reparations seem a long way off. Thousands of men and women have been waiting nearly 20 years for political recognition of the crimes committed against them. Now, Keiko Fujimori’s lead over centre-right candidate Pedro Pablo Kuczynski of Peruanos Por el Kambio (Peruvians for Change) is a daunting sign of the fight ahead.
In 1995, when she was just 18 years old, Keiko Fujimori was made de-facto first lady after her parents’ messy divorce. That was the same year that Alberto Fujimori’s Congress changed the National Population Law to introduce sterilisation, or voluntary surgical contraception, as a possible family planning method.
The first recognised case of State-ordered forced sterilisation was brought to the attention of human rights agencies in 1999. Mamerita Mestanza, a 33-year-old indigenous woman, lived in La Encañada with her husband and seven children. According to human rights organisation CLADEM, personnel from the provincial medical centre began pressuring Mestanza to undergo tubal ligation as early as 1996: “The medical centre claimed that an existing law mandated the incarceration and ticketing of anyone with more than five children.”
After repeated accounts of intimidation and threats, and without information about potential health risks, she agreed to the surgery. Eight days later, on 4th April 1998, Mestanza died of an infection and inadequate medical attention.
Four years after her husband’s denouncement, the Peruvian government accepted responsibility for her death in a case that made it to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, acknowledging that her rights had been violated and agreeing to provide reparations for victims, investigate other claims of forced sterilisations, punish those responsible, and put preventative measures in place to prevent such abuse in the future. Unfortunately, tens of thousands of victims are still awaiting justice.
Almost 20 years have passed since the end of Fujimori’s presidency, and testimonies from people forcibly sterilised under his government are slowly gaining public attention. ‘The Quipu Project’ is an interactive website and phone line that exists not only to spread awareness of the sterilisations to the broader Peruvian and international community, but also to build a virtual solidarity among those affected by Fujimori’s programme. The project is made by Chaka Studio in collaboration with Convenio IAMAMC (Institute of Support for the Autonomous Movement of Rural Women), AMHBA (Association of Huancabamba Women), AMAEF-C (Association of Sterilised Women- Cusco), and independent groups of sterilised people from the district of Independencia, Ayacucho. It was created in memory of Giulia Tamayo Leon, the human rights activist and lawyer who first uncovered the forced sterilisations, for forcibly sterilised people and their families to share their testimonies.
Rosemarie Lerner, one of the directors of the project, says using a phone line was important so as to provide “a platform for people to tell their stories in their own voices” and also to “listen to each other”. Some have even had the opportunity to meet one another, but for those who have not, “now they know that the same thing happened to someone thousands of miles away in the same country, and they are not alone.”
As of now, there are 150 testimonies on the website. Three of those are from men who were forcibly vasectomised. All of the testimonies are anonymous so as not to further endanger the people who speak out. “Right now,” Lerner said, “the women are receiving threats.” With the approaching election, “women are scared to speak out because they are scared that if they speak out against Fujimori and his daughter is elected, something will happen to them.”
Amnesty International’s ‘Against Her Will’ global campaign has also put pressure on out-going President Humala to create a list of people who may have been forcibly sterilised under Fujimori’s presidency. Yet the campaign still represents only a portion of the thousands of men and women subjected to the National Population Programme. The repressive and silencing nature of Fujimori’s government, and the legacy of state-sanctioned violence against marginalised communities in Peru, has made it difficult for victims to have their voices heard. Marina Navarro, the director of Amnesty International in Peru, told Reuters: “It’s been 18 years since the first report of a forced sterilisation and we still don’t know how many victims there were.”
For those targeted by Alberto Fujimori’s population control policy who have yet to see legal justice, imprinting the state’s recent violence into public memory is an important first step towards mobilising people to fight for reparations and building a future in which such human rights violations could not happen again. Forcibly sterilised activist Victoria Vigo believes that thanks to increased awareness of this history, the same violence could not happen again: “Times have changed for the better.” But DEMUS (Defense of Women’s Rights) lawyer Julio Arbizu worries that Keiko Fujimori’s election could mean an indefinite hold on investigations and prosecutions: “It’s one of our biggest worries because Fujimorism of the past and that of the present are one. Of that, have no doubt.”
The sterilisations are increasingly recognised as a systematic and intentional policy implemented by Alberto Fujimori to prevent low-income indigenous and rural families from having children, but Keiko Fujimori has failed to hold her father fully accountable. When speaking at Harvard last year, she shifted blame for the sterilisations onto medical personnel. With amplified pressure during this election cycle, she has expressed hesitant support for forcibly sterilised women: “if there were any that were operated without their consent, they would receive reparations from the State.”
However, Lerner says that the women are dubious of her Fujimori’s claims: “If she wants to speak about this and say that she stands with them, then why hasn’t she come, in all this time, to meet them?”
Fujimori’s opponent from the PPK, Kuczynski, has met with women who were forcibly sterilised and promised to continue the registry and investigations. Alberto Fujimori’s government, he told Algo Mas radio, “left us traumatised”.
Indeed despite being a centre-right candidate, Kuczynski has received support from a left and centre that is afraid and outraged at the idea of another Fujimori in office. On Monday, ex-candidate for the leftist party Frente Amplia (Broad Majority), Verónika Mendoza, announced that she will vote for Kuczynski so as to “put an end to the time of Fujimorism.” On Tuesday, people around the world held protests in solidarity with Peru’s ‘No a Keiko’ (No to Keiko) movement.
Keiko Fujimori’s reluctance to speak openly about her father’s crimes against humanity is foreboding – history unrecognised is more susceptible to be repeated.
Fujimori has been critical of the current president’s “use of the forced sterilisations towards political ends”, but the potential first female president of Peru now has until Sunday to prove to voters that the Fujimorism of the 90s is a thing of the past.