Looking Back: Silent Genocide Against the Indigenous Women of Peru

Courtesy of Amazonwatch.org

The silent genocide against the indigenous people (mostly women) of Peru is often overlooked and forgotten. Like many political conflicts, the intersectional oppression of women (written as ‘womxn’ in this post) is a violation of their basic human rights. The events that have led to and resulted in the targeting of indigenous womxn should not be dismissed nor buried in the pages of history. 

This story is written and shared by Josenrique Villarreal, a young activist and writer. 

Short Short Summary

In 1995, the Peruvian government under Alberto Fujimori, enacted the National Population Law which sterilized a majority of the indigenous population. Many women were forced to surgically remove their reproductive organs and later died of unattended complications. State actors consistently violate human rights where indigenous populations are easily targeted as a result of linguistic, cultural, and socio-economic variation. 

The ​Programa Nacional de Población (National Population Program or NPL) sought to diminish the national population growth by decreasing the fertility rate of womxn, specifically the impoverished, indigenous, and marginalized communities of rural Peru to enhance economic growth. Fujimori’s contraception program is only one of many legally implemented policies in South America.

Victims and Victimizers 

“They held my arms, one like this and one like that. There were nurses, they were all standing in a row. One came at me from behind and two others held my arms. They dragged me into the O.R. I felt the anesthesia starting to work” said Josefa Quispe.

She was one of the 300,000 indigenous Peruvian womxn (read innocent victims) to be forcefully sterilized by programs ratified by notorious ex-president Alberto Fujimori and his government, the victimizers.

Forced sterilization of more than 200,000 indigenous women in Peru has exposed the government’s unjust policies and racial divisions across the country.

Forced Sterilization 

The president pressured many family planning staff to meet certain quotas and the working conditions in which state health employees worked in resulted in low quality care and human rights abuses. The fear of losing their jobs is the reason why some nurses skewed the truth and forced thousands of womxn (and men) into sterilization procedures.

From a doctor’s personal account, who was working with the Ministry of Health, “we were required to perform a certain number of sterilizations each month. This was obligatory and if we did not comply we were fired.” Many doctors and nurses bribed victims with money or bags of rice in order to satisfy weekly and monthly quotas in their own clinics.

Maria Elena Carbajal

Carbajal says she was sterilized in 1996 after the birth of her son. Then, her husband left her. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Times)

According to Miranda Velikoff, a family planning specialist, there were Peruvian medical records of 157 cases of sterilization, and only 11 consent forms were filled out correctly and in 112 cases no consent procedure was even presented in 1995. Consent forms and manuals on the procedure were rarely prepared or handed out to womxn prior to the programs initiation and failed to be distributed to clinics. Worse, the president’s personal family planning advisor, Dr. Eduardo Yong Motta, was in weekly contact with program staff to increase the quotas for surgical procedures.

Florentina Loayza

Florentina Loayza, 40, says she was sterilized at age 19 after being held down and anesthetized. (Courtesy of Los Angeles Times)

Another factor that contributed to the recruitment of womxn in clinics was that many health employees were hired on state contracts and reevaluated based on output levels. The abundance of nurses and doctors exceeded the amount of medical positions in Peru so risking their jobs over ethical practice burdened both parties which engendered negative attitudes towards the healthcare system between patient and worker.

The atrocities inflicted upon these womxn was also due to a pre existing racial and sexist environment. It was in Josefa Quispe’s experience that nurses ridiculed the womxn who underwent surgeries. Although there is a lack of statistical evidence of racism inside these clinics, personal accounts reinforce gender stereotypes of Peruvian womxn as animal-like and sexually unrestrained.

Christina Ewig, a professor and researcher of inequalities, gender, and race in Latin America, addresses the racial divide between the primarily ​mestizo ​staff, born in urban cities and educated in Lima, and the indigenous womxn living in the Andean rural communities. The indigenous womxn were the greatest victims of state policy and racial practices. 

Controlling Women’s Bodies 

Because rural indigenous womxn are amongst the least formally educated and poorest in society, they were easily deceived. ​

Quecha​ is the most spoken language by the indigenous peoples living in the Andean mountain range. According to a Peruvian demographic study, about 8 to 10 million people living in this region only speak ​Quecha​, which is about 13% of the total population. At the time of the NPL, many of the nurses, clinics, and rehabilitation centers either refused or did not speak the native language. 

Medical pamphlets and brochures were strictly printed in Spanish and hindered victims from understanding what they would be “participating” in.

Propaganda and advertisements in indigenous towns illustrated old policy legacies of controlling women’s bodies to achieve national and economic objectives.

Why Language Matters​

They are Quechua speakers, they do not know their civil and moral rights, to date they do not understand what they did to their bodies, they do not know what the operation consisted of” was what the public conceded to be the reasoning and justification for indigenous misinterpretation of the horrors imposed on them. It is important to recognize that the public’s and media’s rhetoric is often perceived as official discourse they didn’t even experience first-hand.

Language is the fundamental right of the individual, particularly the indigenous whose voice is often spoken but rarely heard.

As Pierre Bordieu, a French anthropologist, said: “the power of words is not in the words themselves, but in the authority they represent.” Thus, when spoken from privilege, words become the singular truth used to minimize (and reject) the voice of the oppressed. And that is exactly what Fujimori’s media did to indigenous womxn.

After these women were sterilized, their pain and suffering did not end.

The Gift of Reproduction 

Women in indigenous society are considered the earth. It is a cultural phenomenon in the Andean highlands that with fertility comes an abundance of gifts from the Incan gods. They believe that by giving life, Mother Nature will return life to the people through fertile crops, rain, protection, etc. which is why it is expected that have children–they are a reward for fertile crops that brings the family a sustainable income. 

To make matters worse, sterilized womxn suffered from domestic violence. The story of Mrs. Quispe did not end after she returned from the clinic. It had just begun. In an interview, she said she never felt the same again after forced sterilization. Her health slowly deteriorated. She suffered with bodily pains and eventually diagnosed with cancer, which meant she could no longer work in the fields.

Many times, she begged her children to give her “poison” used on the crops because she wanted to die. Her husband repeatedly told her to “just die so I can feed you to the dogs.”

Will There Be Justice?

Victoria Vigo, a Peruvian womxn who was unknowingly sterilized after her first born child, is one of the few indigenous womxn, who won her case in the Pruvian court of law. Although some do receive monetary compensation for their legal cases, the mental and physical ailments they endure can never be compensated.

Twenty years later, many victims have not yet come to terms with what was done to them. Social workers over the past decade have begun to set up workshops in rural communities to educate victims on what the government forced them to do and the legal steps these womxn can take to seek justice for their pain.  

After his fourth conviction in 2009, Fujimori’s 45-year sentence in prison for corruption, crimes against humanity, and murder was medically pardoned by incumbent Pres. Pedro Pablo Kuczynski. Feminist movements have fought against the release of Fujimori to raise awareness of his government’s damaging policies on the indigenous women. 

Although Fujimori’s imprisonment and health may be punishment enough for his actions, the voices of 300,000 remain unheard. Feminists serve as the voice and their protests continue to keep stories like Josefa Quispe alive.

Final Thoughts

Fujimori’s regime placed Peru on a trajectory to cultural and political shock. The National Population Law’s, despite its rights-oriented rhetoric, promised economic growth and poverty reduction, not reproductive health and rights. And although the fragile economy prospered under Fujimori, the lives of many Peruvians did not. The sterilization program exposed racial and social inequalities that served to separate the indigenous from the urban middle-class in the late 1990s. The regional community needs to recognize the atrocities that has scared Peruvian history in order to legitimize the voice of the indigenous, respect their rights to sovereignty, and restore their cultural significance within Peruvian society.

Today, Josefa Quispe and the 299,999 other womxn and men remain crippled by the silent genocide.

Guest post by Josenrique Villarreal, an activist and writer. To get in touch with him, use the contact form with the subject line “Jose.”

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