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Pursuing Justice for Peruvian Women Forcibly Sterilized Under Fujimori’s Rule


María Ysabel Cedano
María Ysabel Cedano, director of Demus, a women’s rights group in Lima, Peru. It has sought damages for indigenous women in Peru who were forcibly sterilized at one point in the country’s long armed conflict.

LIMA, Peru — Despite making great economic strides in recent years, Peru has a violent history that remains relatively fresh for many people here. Starting around 1980 and lasting until 2000, the country was rocked by an internal armed conflict between the Peruvian army and various guerilla groups, most notably the Shining Path. Atrocity crimes were committed by the warring parties, and women bore the brunt of many of these crimes directly or relatedly, as revealed by human-rights groups and in postconflict truth-bearing settings.

A government program that came to light, for example, after the violence ended, had set quotas for forcibly sterilizing hundreds of thousands of indigenous women (and some men) from about 1996 to 2000. Under the guise of the Voluntary Surgical Contraception program, President Alberto Fujimori authorized large-scale involuntary tubal ligation to be carried out on mostly poor women. Fujimori is now in prison for various charges, including corruption and human-rights abuses, but he has never been charged for authorizing the forced sterilization program.

The sterilizations were done by medical personnel in mostly rural clinics, supposedly to reduce the population and to ostensibly provide women the ability to exercise their reproductive rights in a ruse by Fujimori to challenge the domination of the Catholic Church. The program involved manipulation if not physical force, as an American medical anthropologist, Kimberly Theidon, began documenting during her visits to Peru starting in 1997. The Quechua speaking people became the main targets because of their remote location and not knowing Spanish.

The surgeries were often rushed to meet the quotas, which were set by the Ministry of Health, leaving victims with complications or permanent health problems; in some instances, anesthesia ran out but surgeries went on. Theidon’s research has also pointed out the financial role of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID, in the program.

While Peru now has laws meant to protect women from violence and discrimination, they remain key issues for women, who are undervalued in society by the government and by the machismo agenda in Peru.

María Ysabel Cedano is a feminist activist and human-rights lawyer in Lima, the capital. She also directs Demus, a women’s rights organization. Through Demus and other organizations, Cedano has been leading attempts to seek justice for the victims of both the forced sterilizations and the armed conflict and is a champion not only for women’s sexual and reproductive rights but also for the lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender (LGBT) population and ethnic minority groups.

In this interview with her, conducted in March 2015 at the Demus headquarters, she discussed her work. The interview has been edited and condensed for length.

Q. Reports have revealed at least 300,000 (mainly indigenous) women were forcibly sterilized by the Fujimori government in Peru from 1996 to 2000. The feminist movement here has been trying to bring those responsible for this coercion to justice, but an investigation headed by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights was thrown out for a second time in 2014 on the basis, the court said, that forced sterilization does not constitute a “crime against humanity.” What is the reasoning behind this decision? And what are the next steps to move this case forward again?

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A. Back in 2014, the inquiry on forced or coerced sterilizations was partly halted. The state attorney who ordered this argued that, despite the fact they were not common felonies and constituted serious violations to human rights, they did not constitute crimes against humanity. Since they are serious violations to human rights, he considered they should not be completely thrown out, and so left the door open for victims to refile a case against all health [and justice] personnel who were responsible for forcibly sterilizing them. However, since they are not crimes against humanity, the attorney general excluded [former president] Alberto Fujimori and his former ministers of health from the inquiry and any responsibility.

The problem here is that the attorney general considered these crimes to be serious violations against human rights under the form of “delitos culposos” [criminal negligence], which is a contradiction, because you cannot have human-rights violations without intent. In other words [if it is deemed negligence], you cannot commit a serious human-rights violation. He also stated that these are not crimes against humanity because no organized state apparatus was used to violate human rights, but the Ministry of Health is a hierarchical and vertical organization where health staff would report to the minister of health, who would then report to the president regarding how the family planning program and the reproductive and sexual health plan were being implemented. This is why we filed an appeal against this ruling, and we’re still waiting for the 3rd National Circuit Court [devoted to human rights] to resolve this appeal.

Q. Although violence against women was widespread in Peru during the conflict, most of the violence fell on rural indigenous women. These women are considered “double victims” because of their vulnerability to both violence and discrimination. Do you feel that gender and race are two factors that continue to limit and hurt women inside Peru?

A. Definitely, the victims of forced sterilizations and sexual violence during the conflict are women who have been discriminated against not just because of their gender, but also because of their ethnicity, racial origin and social class. In Peru, discrimination takes the form of a “braid of exclusion” that tangles together gender, class and race. Both the victims of sexual violence during the conflict and of forced sterilizations shared the same features of being peasant, Quechua-speaking indigenous women. This demographic has been twice and even thrice victimized during the cycle of political violence, which makes them vulnerable and exposes them to even more violence.

A Quecha-speaking woman in the highlands of Peru. RHONA SCULLION
An indigenous woman in Cuzco, selling alpaca wool hats and other traditional goods. RHONA SCULLION

Q. Forced sterilization of women is not the only crime against women that occurred during the decades-long civil war in Peru. Slavery and rape of women also happened on both sides of the conflict. In 2006, the Comprehensive Reparations Plan was set up to pay victims of the conflict, but has any of this money been paid to victims?

A. During the internal armed conflict, forced sterilizations were definitely not the only crime committed against women. There were many forms of sexual violence going on. The report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission registered 527 cases of rape against women and 11 against men; right now, the Comprehensive Victim Registry lists more than 4,000 cases involving different forms of sexual violence [against men and women] that occurred during this time in Peru. This number accounts for all forms of sexual violence, not just rape but sexual slavery, genital mutilation, torturing pregnant women, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy and forced abortion. However, we have not been able to pass the bill that modifies the National Reparations Plan so [that] all victims of sexual violence are considered victims and beneficiaries. Right now, only rape victims are considered victims and beneficiaries in the Reparations Plan.

Demus has been fighting to modify Articles 3 and 6 from the Comprehensive National Reparations Plan. Parliament passed the reformed bill, but the executive power, President Ollanta Humala and his then prime minister [Óscar], Valdéz, proposed amendments that required it to be resubmitted to Parliament and therefore delayed the process. Consequently, of all the victims of sexual violence registered by the Comprehensive Victim Registry, only some have received their reparations. Out of over 4,000 registered cases, I can tell you [for certain] about the women Demus has sponsored, who are 3 female rape victims from a Highlander community in the Central Andes region, whose cases are about to enter cross-examination. They have already collected the 10,000 soles [$3,200] owed to them as monetary reparation.

Q. Peru has laws today that are supposed to protect women from sexual harassment, domestic violence and sexual abuse, yet these laws are not doing enough to prevent these crimes from happening. How can legislators ensure that laws work to protect women? Are organizations like Demus making progress in the push for greater protective laws for women in Peru?

A. Currently, we have a law meant to protect [people] against domestic/intra-family violence; we have “crimes against sexual freedom” described and classified as felonies in our criminal code; and recently, Parliament passed a bill to punish and prevent street harassment. Right now, you can report harassment as “acts against modesty” or as “public offenses,” but street sexual harassment by itself is not necessarily something you can be convicted of; that is still pending a criminal code reform.

We don’t believe that describing a specific type of sexual violence as a crime is enough, or that you can change anything by simply doing so. We believe that a proper public investment policy is necessary. We need plans and programs aimed at prevention and to implement a comprehensive curriculum for sexual education in schools, so public education institutions can undo some of the damage done by the sexist, patriarchal education that children receive at home. To accomplish all this, we need different ministries to work together in a coordinated manner, not just the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population and the Ministries of Education and Health, but also Defense, Interior, Economy. Right now, the Ministry of Women and Vulnerable Population gets less than 1 percent of the national budget every year, and programs against family or sexual violence get even less, so even if they’re opening over 20 new Women’s Emergency Centers per year, the coverage and the quality they provide is well below adequate, and the government invests less and less on prevention every year.

Q. What will it take for cultural views on women in Peru to improve?

A. We need — on top of a public education policy and a public policy on sexual education that questions existing sexism — a national pact that involves both the relevant ministries and the private sector, especially media groups, advertisers and marketing agencies. We think it’s important for self-regulation organisms to have specific agreements aimed at avoiding gender discrimination in advertising. Parliament also needs to pass a bill against sexist advertising because the National Institute for Consumer Protection has a policy of placing freedom of speech over equality. They argue that there is no proof that advertising by itself encourages or directly causes discrimination, but of course advertising is full of sexist stereotypes that objectify women, because legislation is not clear enough on the topic and any time a complaint is filed, it goes unanswered.

Q. Demus also advocates for LGBT rights; what is the biggest barrier to equality for LGBT people in Peru?

A. Demus has fought for the right of transgender women to change their names legally, and we have succeeded: we managed to get the Justice Department to accept a name change. We’re now trying to get [the Justice Department] to accept a sex change on National Identity Cards. We think one of the biggest barriers faced by the LGBT community is discrimination at the hands of the religious establishment. The Catholic Church, as well as other Christian churches, refuse to accept the constitutional principle of church and state separation, and want their religious doctrine to be the basis for Peruvian legislation. However, Peruvian laws must be based on our Constitution and the human-rights conventions we partake in. So right now, one of the main adversaries holding back the LGBT community is the clergy who try to influence political powers and even establish themselves within it by trying to enshrine their religious ideas into law, despite the fact that Peru is a secular state.

The interview was translated from Spanish to English by Ximena Rondon.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Rhona Scullion is a Scottish writer and reporter who works as a prison law advocate in Nottingham, England. She writes on a variety of human rights and British political topics, often on women’s issues. Having previously worked in Hong Kong and Peru, she has written for the Women News Network and UNA-UK, among others. Scullion has a joint honors bachelor’s degree in English literature and modern history from the University of St. Andrews and a postgraduate law degree from Nottingham Law School. She passed the English bar exam in 2017.

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Pursuing Justice for Peruvian Women Forcibly Sterilized Under Fujimori’s Rule
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