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.
“Did you ever think to kick him out of the house?” I ask. “Never, God forbid. I took care of him until the last day of his life,” Justina says. For her, this abnegation is a moral value that she was taught at home since childhood and at Catholic mass every Sunday, where she showed up in her best clothes. She was told the story of Mary, the holy mother of God, whom she looked up to with devotion.
The nuns, who acted as advisers to women in the community, were horrified at what had happened to Justina: “You can’t come to church anymore; what you have done is a sin.” She had never felt more alone and told the nuns that she didn’t know they were going to sterilize her. She repeated those same words to the priest in confession as she begged for forgiveness. Ultimately, as though there were something to forgive, the priest gave her a blessing. She felt relieved, for at least the priest hadn’t turned his back on her.
“Is there anything for God to forgive you, Justina?” I ask, and she is upset by my question. Rather than acknowledging me, she feigns sleep and speaks to her daughter in Quechua. In these corners of Peru, where the Quechua language is very much alive, I am a stranger. Not speaking or understanding the language makes me an outsider, and because of this, Justina knew Quechua was her safe space.
“Do you believe that sterilization is a sin?” I ask, continuing to press her for an answer. This time, Justina answers me in the affirmative.
Eight years ago, Justina’s husband, who had never helped her and did not appreciate her, became ill with symptoms like fevers and vomiting. He was like a child, and Justina had to take care of him. She fed him, bathed him, and wiped him when he defecated with no shame or discomfort. “What could I do?” She waited patiently for the disease to take his life.
Justina doesn’t say whether she was relieved when her husband passed away. Recently, she saw his photograph in her son’s room, and she felt moved. She has overcome his insults, and because of this, she feels ready to revisit the clinic in Secclla where she was sterilized.
“I’m nervous that they won’t let us enter,” she tells me as we are en route. The clinic is two blocks away from the central plaza and has been completely remodeled, painted yellow. On one of the walls, there are signs for gynecological-health campaigns. Justina approaches and stands in front of the clinic in silence.
A nurse comes out and asks us what’s going on, why we brought cameras, and on whose authorization we are doing this. We came up with an excuse to enter, and the resident psychologist greeted us.
“As far as I know, we don’t have any cases involving women being sterilized,” the nurse says, confused. Later, she would admit she had been working at the health center for only a short time and that she hadn’t done fieldwork. She says this all while a sign stating “Policy of compensation for those affected by the internal armed conflict” hangs on the door of her office. An obstetrician proudly remarks that they deliver ten healthy babies each month. The clinic has the capacity to deliver babies, and it is prepared to help with home births; there’s new equipment, a larger crew. Since 2013, it has been working on intercultural policies.
“Women were sterilized here,” I say.
The obstetrician, a thin woman with a sweet voice, changes the topic of the conversation. “Nowadays, nothing is done without consent. All birth-control methods are approved by patients prior to use or procedure,” she says. Things have changed in Secclla, save for the ambulance that brought Justina and many other women to the clinic. It has been twenty years, and the same one is still there. The back of the building also maintains its original infrastructure, with the galvanized roof still in place. Justina walks down the hallways as if she recalls in which room she awoke, feeling pain in her womb.
Far from the clinic, next to a wood oven, while boiling maize and potatoes, Justina admits that whenever she recalls the “bad things,” she develops a headache. Many women experience psychosomatic symptoms — their sadness and pain manifest in physical ways. They take it as something that will appear now and then and that doesn’t have a cure. “The sadness is what pains me,” the grandmothers in these communities say.
When Justina arrives in Lima, she will be meeting women from northern, central, and southern Peru whose stories are similar to her own. She will see herself in these stories. It was hard for her to accept the travel, but then she thought: There is nothing else to lose. Bit by bit, she had lost emotional support from those around her.
There is a word Justina says she doesn’t know, but she has put this word into practice for all of the 3,620 days following her forced sterilization. This word is *resilience*. Only this resilience and her one-year-old granddaughter, Emi, whom Justina loves and hopes never experiences anything like what she herself went through, are the reasons why she tells her story now.
*This article was translated by Victoria J. Campoverde.*
*Editor’s Note: In April 2018, District Attorney Luis Landa ordered the reopening of the forced-sterilization case of 2,166 women against former president Alberto Fujimori and several others from his administration. Prosecutor Marcelita Gutierrez, who closed the case in 2016, has thus far declined to do so.*
*A version of this article was originally published by Malquerida, a digital journalism project written in Spanish, edited, produced and illustrated entirely by women. Sign up for the (2), or follow Malquerida on (3), (1) or (1).*
*Gloria Alvitres is a journalist specialized in environmental and social conflicts, with a strong interest in women profiles. She is a former reporter for Peruvian investigative journalism site Convoca. Her poetry work was selected in the anthology of* Ínsula Barataria Magazine *in 2016. She is working on her first collection of poems.*
*Victoria J. Campoverde is an undergraduate student majoring in sociology with a health care sub-plan at the University of Minnesota.*