The government of the small central Asian country of Uzbekistan has declared 2012 “The Year of the Family.” As the Uzbek culture traditionally values the family, marriage, and children above all other things, this proclamation is perfectly in sync with the spirit of the people. The goals of the year are to increase the number of happy families and to strengthen the institution of the family in Uzbekistan. It is an entirely worthy goal; however, it stands in stark contrast to the startling information that was released this month by the BBC.
An undercover investigation has made public a secret campaign by the government (which is already known for its abuse of human rights) to sterilize women across the country either by coercion or direct force. According to Sukhrob Ismailov of the Expert Working Group, “We are talking about tens of thousands of women being sterilized throughout the country.” Officials in Tashkent, the nation’s capital, say that the allegations “bore no relation to reality” and that their record of protecting women and their babies is “excellent and could be considered a model for countries around the world.” The tragic stories told by Uzbek women and the physicians responsible for their care, however, reflect a different reality. Women from all across the country report being sterilized without their knowledge or consent.
Adolat, a young Uzbek mother, reported being unable to conceive again after having her second child. When she went to her gynecologist to seek an answer for her infertility, she was told that the reason she could not conceive was that she has been sterilized during the Caesarian birth of her daughter. Another mother, experiencing pain and bleeding following the birth of her son, went to the doctor only to discover that her uterus had been removed.
Uzbek doctors report that the sterilizations are the result of orders from the government. “Every year we are presented with a plan. Every doctor is told how many women we are expected to give contraception to; how many women are to be sterilized,” one gynecologist in Tashkent told the BBC. An anonymous source at the Ministry of Health says that the program is in place to control Uzbekistan’s growing population.
While the forced sterilizations in Uzbekistan have been taking place only since 2005, according to most sources, an aggressive population control program has a long history. Uzbekistan is a former Soviet satellite. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) made population control their highest priority for central Asian countries. In exchange for foreign aid and diplomatic ties, Uzbekistan, like many other countries depending on aid, was pressured to submit to an aggressive population control program beginning in the early 1990’s.
In 1966, Congress passed the Foreign Assistance Act and earmarked funds from USAID to be used entirely for the purpose of population control. Additionally, the legislation directed that all US economic aid be contingent on the willingness of recipient governments receiving aid to establish these sorts of programs. According to a 1992 USAID report, one million intrauterine devices were inserted in 1991 which, if accurate, would be 20% of the fertile female population. USAID still functions in Uzbekistan and allocate $146,000 of its $12,000,000 budget for “reproductive health” in that country.
The Uzbek government, along with President Islam Karizov, seems to have learned a great deal about how to achieve population goals from their foreign benefactors. One senior doctor at a provincial Uzbek hospital told the BBC, “It’s very easy to manipulate a woman, especially if she is poor. You can say that her health will suffer if she has more children. You can tell her that sterilization is best for her. Or you can just do the operation.”
The uncovering of the forced sterilizations bears a similarity to the aggressive, five-year-long sterilization campaign in Peru under President Alberto Fujimori. Between 1995 and 2000, 314,605 Peruvian women were sterilized. In 2003, an official investigative report on the issue was submitted to the Human Rights Commission of the Peruvian Congress. The report made a constitutional indictment of Fujimori and his government for “the alleged commission of crimes against Individual Liberty, against Life, Body, and Health, of Criminal Conspiracy, and Genocide.”
Though Uzbek officials have yet to acknowledge this grave violation of human rights for the sake of population control, the United States is the logical nation to take a role in defending Uzbek women from this systematic abuse. As it was U.S. policies that first initiated these programs, it is only right that the U.S. now do what it can to protect their innocent victims. In this Year of the Family, it would be heartening to see the Uzbek families free to flourish without the specter of forced sterilization.