The Feminist Paradox


By Amy Xu

In the late 1990s, 300,000 indigenous women underwent forced sterilization in Peru. Most of them only spoke Quechua, a native language of the Andes. Most of them came from poor rural communities and were forced into the surgery by public health workers armed with quotas. Many of them died, like Mamerita Mestanza. Mestanza was thirty-three years old at the time, a mother of six.

In September 1995, less than a year before the forced sterilizations began, then President Alberto Fujimori made a grand announcement at the 1995 International Conference on Women in Beijing. In an effort to “modernize” and promote “family planning,” Fujimori announced his newest crusade: the Reproductive Health and Family Planning Program. Issued by the Peruvian Ministry of Heath, the program would help the poor and move the country toward gender equity, Fujimori said. Restrictions on women’s reproductive rights would be lifted. Free family planning services would be provided by the state. Access to contraceptives would be opened up to all, and sterilization surgery would be legalized.

Fujimori was the only male president at the Beijing Conference; for that reason alone, his attendance was news. But with the announcement of the new Family Planning Program, Fujimori provoked an immediate reaction among the Peruvian public. His opponents—conservatives, often Catholic—were enraged. On the flipside, the feminist movement applauded the new program. The sterilizations began in 1996.

Most people see the forced sterilizations as the inhumane legacy of a now disgraced leader. But behind Fujimori’s authoritarian state politics was another actor, one that played an often forgotten role in the sterilizations: civil society. In the 1990s, Latin American feminism was becoming increasingly institutionalized, technical, and patriarchal. In what scholar Sonia Alvarez calls the “Latin American feminist NGO boom,” feminist non-governmental organizations were being co-opted by the very states they had once rallied against. As a result, these NGOs were skirting around the problem of gender inequity, offering temporary fixes to deeply systematic injustices. Feminism had become depoliticized. Twenty years prior to Lean In, Shery Sandberg’s brand of feminism had gained sway within Global South.

Fujimori’s strong state complicated issues further. Aware that reform would be difficult without state involvement, feminist NGOs were strategic. Organizations were transitioning “de la protesta a la propuesta,” or from protesting to proposing. The Centro de la Mujer Peruana Flora Tristán called for the creation of high-level state agencies that would address gender discrimination. Feminist group Movimiento Manuela Ramos went as far as to call the state an “employer.” NGOs no longer to fought for widespread partisan change. Instead, they rallied around the state to advocate for issue-level reform. But Fujimori’s state was a black box in which progress was uneven and far from transparent; even the most noble of ideas could be warped and manipulated for political gain.

In 1997, feminist lawyer Giuia Tamaya published an extensive investigation of the Family Planning Program. At this point, hundreds of forced sterilization allegations had been filed. Tamaya revealed that women in impoverished rural communities had been pointedly targeted, bribed, and lied to by state officials. The motive for the forced sterilizations was a combination of population control and poverty reduction. Indigenous communities in Peru tended to be poor and to yield high birth rates.

Even after Tamaya exposed the reality of the forced sterilizations, feminist NGOs remained reluctant to condemn the state. Mesa Tripartita, a coalition of NGOs, government officials, and private donors, did not acknowledge the abuses until 1999. Three NGO members belong to Mesa Tripartita, but only one agreed to sign a statement condemning the government. In the face of a major human rights violation, feminist NGOs remained non-confrontational; to lose the state’s political backing appeared strategically unwise. Only after Fujimori was removed from office in 2001 did a court of law investigate the sterilizations. In 2014, Fujimori’s case was thrown out for the second time.

The 1990s Peruvian sterilization speaks to many the issues that still plague Peru and the surrounding region: widespread impunity, body politics, and neoliberalism. The story of NGOization in Peru is also a cautionary tale. NGOs cannot be grouped into categories of “good and “bad,” Alvarez would later note. This binary does not exist; it never has and it never will. Across the region, there are NGOs doing great work—implicating the US in the increasingly militarized Drug War, voicing dissent over the loss of resources to foreign powers, promoting the feminist movement. But when NGOs lose their autonomy, when they became too tied up with state regimes, when they become afraid to scrape deeper than the surface and address systematic failures, they can become harmful.

Amy Xu is a freshman in Branford College and a blogger for the Globalist Notebook on non-state actors in Latin America.

(Image courtesy of flickr user Maria Grazia Montagnari).