Why the reproductive rights of Indigenous women cannot be ignored

Members of Australia's Stolen Generation react as they listen to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his ...

Members of Australia's Stolen Generation react as they listen to Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver his apology on February 13, 2008. Photo: Mark Baker-Pool/Getty Images

In recent weeks, thousands of people have been marching in Peru to protest against the presidential candidacy of Keiko Fujimori. Ms Fujimori is the daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori – a man currently imprisoned for human rights abuses and corruption conducted during his presidency from 1990 to 2000. Among the demands from the protesters has been a call for full recognition and reparation for the estimated 300,000 indigenous women forcibly sterilised under the elder Fujimori's regime. This short video tells how many of these impoverished women were forced to consent to the procedure in exchange for food and welfare provisions. The protesters were wearing cut-out uteruses adorned with numbers to highlight the sheer amount of victims awaiting justice.

Unfortunately, this experience of indigenous Peruvian women is not an isolated case. Across the world, many governments have sought to control the fertility of indigenous women via practices which can only be described as genocidal. In addition, where Indigenous women have been able to have children, governments sought to remove these children from their families in order to "assimilate them". In most cases, while some acknowledgements have happened, justice and reparations tend to fall well short of undoing the harm and hurt.

In Canada, for example, coercive and government-sanctioned sterilisation programs operated for several decades. Aboriginal women; along with the disabled and other peoples deemed "unfit" by the authorities; were targeted by such programs. Native sterilisation reached its zenith in the early 1970s where an estimated 25 per cent of those sterilised were aboriginal and Métis people. In Canada, this also ran alongside "residential school" programs where children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools in order to assimilate them into mainstream society.

It appears the need to reduce fertility rates of First Nations women in Canada is not just a feature of bygone years. As recently as this year, women were coming forward claiming to have been coerced into tubal ligations after giving birth. It is also noted that Indigenous children in Canada are now being removed at rates higher than they were during the days of the residential schools.

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Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have delivered a governmental apology for the residential school programs, and current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has committed to working towards full reconciliation following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Yet it is clear that there is a long way to go before the harms of yesteryear truly become a concern of the past.

Likewise, in the United States, it was acknowledged in 1976 that a quarter of Native American women had been forcibly sterilised as part of broader government-sanctioned eugenics programs. In addition, studies have been undertaken to investigate the coercive use of Depo Provera and Norplant by medical practitioners in Native American communities before the drugs had been approved for widespread contraceptive use by the Food and Drug Administration. In 1996, the Cheyenne River Reservation actually sought to remove these contraceptives from their community not only citing the negative health impacts experienced by many women they had been administered to, but also claiming that these drugs had been administered without patients being provided knowledge of the risks.

It is noted that apologies have been made in some states to Native American people, along with other affected communities. But like with Canada, there is a long way to go before full acknowledgement is made and reparation is delivered.

Within our own country, we find similar parallels. As Larissa Behrendt argues, the 1960s and 1970s calls by feminists in Australia for access to contraception and safe, legal abortion tended to neglect the fight for Aboriginal women not only to have children, but to keep them. The forced removal of children into missions and non-Indigenous families for education and assimilation eventually became known as the 'Stolen Generations'. Prime Minister Rudd may have issued an apology for these practices by successive governments, but compensation schemes continue to be lacking. Additionally, it is noted that Aboriginal children continue to be removed at alarmingly high rates across the country.

In the 1980s, mining magnate Lang Hancock called for the herding of "non-civilised" Aboriginal people into areas with water supplies designed to sterilise them so they breed out. This was despite the fact that Mr Hancock fathered at least one Aboriginal child. 

The 1980s may now seem like a long time ago, but only last year were the reproductive capacities of impoverished Aboriginal women cast into sharp relief by Gary Johns who described them as "cash cows" being kept impregnated for the purpose of drawing in increased government benefits. He had, only months earlier, suggested that taking contraceptive methods should be a prerequisite for claiming the dole. That the reproductive capacities of Aboriginal women - because let's face it, nobody is talking about temporary sterilisation of men - continue to be a political football for prominent white male leaders to kick around for infamy is incredibly troubling in a country which continually struggles to come to terms with its past.

I hope the Peruvian women are successful in their calls for justice for the forcibly sterilised indigenous women in their country. Should they be successful, they may set a benchmark for many other countries to achieve. The challenge lies in whether their government can learn from the failures of other governments across the world to deliver proper justice. For unfortunately, when it comes to the government treatment of reproductive rights of indigenous women globally, there are many failures to draw upon.