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Talking Policy: Sandra Tabares-Duque on Forced Sterilization in Peru

"Quipus are knotted cords that were used by the Incas and ancient Andean civilizations, to convey complex messages," reads the Quipu Project website. These instruments inspired the project’s interactive documentary, which provides an opportunity for people—mostly indigenous men and women—who were forcibly sterilized by the Peruvian government in the 1990s to dial into a a phone line connected to a website. Testimonies are recorded through the phone line, and people around the world can listen on the website. World Policy Journal spoke with Colombian filmmaker Sandra Tabares-Duque, a producer for the project, about the government policy that left hundreds of thousands of men and women calling for justice. 

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Could you tell me about the Quipu Project? Why did you start it?

SANDRA TABARES-DUQUE: The Quipu Project is a transmedia project that exposes the stories of 272,000 women and 21,000 men who were sterilized in the mid-90s during the Alberto Fujimori regime. They have since been repeatedly silenced and denied justice. We felt that telling their stories in a linear documentary form was not enough, so we decided to explore a non-linear alternative, thinking about what’s interesting and relevant for the ongoing fight for justice and how that can be expressed online. We asked: How can technology be used to help marginalized people take part in contemporary, mainstream dialogue and invite them to become co-creators of this narrative?

WPJ: Why did then-President Alberto Fujimori launch the sterilization program in 1996? Who did it target?

TABARES-DUQUE: In 1995 the Peruvian government, led by Fujimori, launched a new Reproductive Health and Family Planning Program, which, for the first time, included “voluntary surgical contraception.” Surgical sterilization was pushed aggressively in poor, rural, and indigenous communities. Medical staff affiliated with the program were threatened with losing their jobs if they did not meet ambitious targets. Informed consent was rarely obtained and many people were coerced or forced into sterilization without their knowledge. Over the course of about four years, the program targeted mostly indigenous, poor, illiterate, rural people, most of them women, whose first language was not Spanish but Quechua, Shipibo, or other indigenous languages.

WPJ: What kinds of stories have you heard from people who participated in the Quipu Project and talked about their experiences? 

TABARES-DUQUE: We have around 200 testimonies in our interactive documentary. People talk about the operations that were performed, some of which are really painful. Women were taken from their village and forcibly sterilized in medical centers where, often, their hands and legs were tied up and they were put to sleep. Others were not anesthetized. Many of the women were sterilized while they were pregnant and the baby died, which had strong psychological repercussions. Following the operation there was no after care, so they had to walk and go home immediately, left with lasting physical pain and unable to work. Back then, after a hysterectomy, you couldn’t do anything for a couple of weeks because you were so weak that you could harm your body permanently if you did.

WPJ: More than 20 years later, what are the lasting repercussions of the sterilization program, both for individuals and for society as a whole?

TABARES-DUQUE: The legacy of this brutal policy still affects lives. Many people suffer emotional and psychological trauma as well as lasting physical pain. Those who had no children before the procedure now have no one to support them in their old age. Others have been abandoned by their partners and families.

When policies go against the basic human rights that hold people together in a society, the sense of belonging, participation, inclusion, and recognition gets erased. In societies that are not demographically homogenous it is easier to slip into destructive patterns of tension and conflict, when we think that the “other” deserves different treatment.

WPJ: What is the Peruvian government now doing for the victims? Are there reparations available for the men and women who were affected?

TABARES-DUQUE: There is no reparation law—that’s the first thing. The case has been reopened many times. There has been an investigation since 2009, but people have been scared to talk about their experiences, even though there have been thousands of complaints and evidence that this policy was in place. In 2015, President Ollanta Humala decided to open the REVIESFO registry (Registro de Víctimas de Esterilizaciones Forzadas) but not much has been done, since the congress is still mostly from the Fujimori era.

WPJ: What do victims of sterilization hope to gain from participating in the Quipu Project? Has there been grass-roots organizing in Peru among those affected?

TABARES-DUQUE: We are filmmakers and creatives, so what we have offered is a platform for their voices to be heard. It’s very common to call people that have been affected by a policy “victims,” but from the beginning that was a word we didn’t want to use. By working with these women, we have seen that yes, this experience was difficult and they suffered a lot of abuse, but they are not victims. They are determining the way to tell their stories and achieve justice. We found was that these women wanted to be heard; they had been speaking for years but no one was listening. We used both low-tech tools—analog telephones, for people to call in—and high-tech ones—putting all the testimonies online, so they can be accessed in other countries. This means people who are politically, geographically, and digitally marginalized can tell their stories using their own voices.

We are working closely with activists in Peru, who have been campaigning for around 20 years, to provide them a tool to share the stories and to connect with each other. Through the phone line they can listen to others’ stories without leaving their home. They can record their stories, feelings, and emotions in their own language—all they need is a phone signal. 

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews.

[Interview conducted by Emma Russell]

[Photo courtesy of Tapesh Yadav]

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