Twenty years ago, Justina Rimachi trusted a stranger, a male nurse who convinced her nothing would happen to her if she got into the ambulance. “I thought that it was a checkup, given that I had recently given birth,” she says. When she woke up in a room with a corrugated roof in a Secclla clinic, in the Huancavelica region of Peru, she felt severe pain in her womb. She had been sterilized. The nurse assured her that the sterilization was a reversible procedure but proceeded to add, “Either way, you shouldn’t have more children.”
My husband is going to kill me, Justina thought.
The ambulance left her at her front door. She recalls spending the next week to month following the procedure dealing with fevers, chills, pain, and fear.
It was 1998, and she was 28 years old. Then-president Alberto Fujimori’s administration had promised to reduce poverty in Peru, and so the National Program of Reproductive Health and Family Planning was created. This program included mass sterilizations across the country. Social-justice organizations estimate that 200,000 men and women were sterilized during that time period. The majority of these people were sterilized without their consent. While this data is incomplete, it gives us an idea of the large number of operations conducted.
Justina isn’t part of these statistics — she was never registered, because the Minister of Justice didn’t take into account many of the districts in the Huancavelica region. Until recently, she was ashamed to speak on the topic and would respond with silence when asked about it. She is telling me her story on her way to the second meeting of Women Affected by Forced Sterilizations, where she will meet with others who were sterilized against their wills during the Fujimori administration. At first she is skeptical of me — we’ve never met before — but on the bus ride to Lima she begins to open up.
She believes that everything bad came along with that operation. Around the same time, there was an internal armed conflict in Peru, which included raids in Huancavelica and the disappearance of authority figures and community members. Justina would never feel safe again. She had married her husband at nineteen, and together they had built their house on fertile land on the side of a mountain in Manyaclla, Huancavelica.
After the conflict, known as the Shining Path, began, Justina’s husband would return home drunk. He had joined the ranks of a militia of farmers created to fight subversion but didn’t want to talk about what he had seen.
“Then it happened,” says Justina.
The first violence came from the State, which through doctors invaded her body without consent. The second came from her community and her family.
“They called me a whore. They told my husband rumors that I must have asked to be sterilized because I wanted to be with other men, and that now I could sleep around. They caused me so many grievances, and I stayed quiet, going to the fields to cry, saying, ‘Why me?’”
She shrinks into herself and begins to tear up. “‘What is the use of a woman who cannot have kids?’ they said to me,” Justina recalls.
Full of rage, her husband took it all out on her, offending and degrading her. He stopped working in the field, taking the cattle out to graze, and collecting wood. He was an alcoholic and became a stranger who no longer slept with her, seemingly disgusted with the idea of touching her. When Justina realized that she had lost her husband, she did all that she could to feed her family. Her four children learned how to plow the land at a young age.