Journalist Natalia Antelava talks with Marco Werman about what she says is a secret program by the government of Uzbekistan to sterilize women against their will.
Antelava, who was barred from entering Uzbekistan to report her story for the BBC, interviewed Uzbek women and doctors who had crossed the border into Kazakhstan, and she contacted others by telephone and e-mail. They told her of a government plan to limit the size of families through sterilization, sometimes without a woman’s consent or even her knowledge.
“After I gave birth to my second child, doctors told me that I shouldn’t have any more,” said one Uzbek woman, who asked not to be identified. “I was under a full anesthetic. They didn’t ask me anything. They just cut out my uterus.”
Doctors told Antelava that the Ministry of Health has ruled that they must perform such surgical sterilizations. “It’s ruling number 1098,” said one doctor, “and it says that after two children, in some areas after three, a woman should be sterilized.”
In a written response to the BBC’s request for comment, the government of Uzbekistan called such allegations slanderous and insisted they bore no relation to reality.
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Marco Werman: The Central Asian nation of Uzbekistan is a former Soviet Republic that has long been decried for human right violations. Torture, religious persecution, and arbitrary arrests are widely reported. Now a BBC documentary reveals an apparent government program to sterilize women, often against their will and sometimes without their knowledge. Journalist Natalia Antelava is the reporter in the documentary. Natalia, these are disturbing and extraordinary claims, it’s got to be said first off. How is it though that a woman can be sterilized without knowing that she has been sterilized?
Natalia Antelava: There are several ways. Most women, the procedure is done after women give birth. Several doctors have told me that the number of Caesareans done in recent years has increased dramatically and it’s normally after the C-section that the procedure is performed. According to the interviews that we’ve conducted, we are talking about tens of thousands of women. The doctors told me they are given quotas each month for how many women they need to sterilize. These quotas range from one woman a week to up to eight women a week in rural areas where the program seems to be enforced much more strictly, and some of these women do give consent, but others, this happens without their knowledge. So it happens either by the tying of fallopian tubes after the C-section or by hysterectomy. Here’s one woman who told me her story.
Uzbek woman: [Speaking Uzbek]
Interpreter: After I gave birth to my second child, doctors told me that I shouldn’t have any more. I was under a full anesthetic. They didn’t ask me anything. They just cut out my uterus. I didn’t’ know about it. Five months later I went to have an ultrasound because I was in so much pain. The doctor said, “You don’t have a uterus anymore.” I cried. He said, “What do you need more kids for? Two is enough for you.”
Antelava: So this is one of many heartbreaking stories that I heard.
Werman: But how do you know that this is a government program and why would the government of Uzbekistan want women sterilized?
Antelava: Well, because the government denies that this is happening in the first place. You know, this is a question that we would put to the government, but they say it’s not happening, so the logic behind it is hard to judge. The doctors say it’s happening because the government is trying to control population. There was actually a decree by the Ministry of Health from 2010 that states that all clinics across Uzbekistan should be equipped with sterilization equipment. However, it emphasizes that the procedure should be done on a voluntary basis with informed consent. From the evidence we gathered, that doesn’t always happen. The doctors I talked to have said that they do receive direct orders from their bosses, the heads of hospitals, the heads of local administration and get these government quotas on how many women they need to sterilize each month.
Werman: Clearly the government of Uzbekistan isn’t pleased with your story. In fact, they wouldn’t let you into the country, so you had to do a lot of your reporting by phone and by talking to Uzbeks who had left the country. The people who did speak with you, are they at any risk of retaliation by the government there?
Antelava: Well, we took very, very careful measures to make sure that we don’t identify any of the people that are in the documentary. They certainly are at risk. Uzbekistan is the sort of a country where speaking to a foreign journalist can land one in jail and jails and prisons in Uzbekistan are notorious for torture. So I think people who talked about it took great risks. I’ve reported from many notorious dictatorships, from Burma, from Syria, from Turkmenistan, but I must say I have never ever dealt with the extent of fear that seems to cloud over Uzbekistan.
Werman: OK. So the government vehemently denies the sterilization program, but is anything being done to change the policy if it exists? Is there any pressure inside Uzbekistan or from the outside?
Antelava: There is, you can say, no descent in Uzbekistan. It’s just not tolerated at all. Many people that I talked to say that it’s possible to put pressure on the government from the outside. Currently, the United States and Europe are trying to rebuild their relationship with Uzbekistan because Uzbekistan offers access to Afghanistan and alternative access to Pakistan, so they need Uzbekistan to get troops in and out. And the US senate lifted sanctions on Uzbekistan including ban on arms sales and so on, and human rights groups that have been I’ve talking to are saying that this is an opportunity that also should be used to put some pressure on the government to end this practice.
Werman: Natalia, we’ve got a link to your BBC documentary on Uzbekistan and sterilization program at theworld.org. Journalist Natalia Antelava, thank you very much.
Antelava: Thank you.
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