By Sophie Davies
LIMA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Feminist activists in Peru are fighting a government decision to stop investigating claims by women who say they were forcibly sterilized, arguing that thousands of women deserve to have their cases heard.
Some 350,000 women were sterilized in the mid-1990s under a program promoted by former president Alberto Fujimori, who argued a lower birth rate was crucial to eliminating poverty in Peru.
Many were sterilized without their knowledge and consent, and those who refused were often threatened with a fine or prison, say activists who view the campaign as one of Peru's biggest human rights scandals.
More than 2,000 women have given statements to Peruvian and international rights groups and prosecutors saying they underwent sterilization without being informed or consenting.
The government's public prosecutor had opened investigations into the forced sterilizations, the first in 2009 and most recently last year.
But last week, the prosecutor opted to close its investigation into complaints by 77 women. Another investigation into more than 2,000 other women was closed this past summer.
Demus, a Lima-based non-profit women's group, filed an appeal this week asking for the decisions to be reversed.
The government is denying these women the right to continue seeking justice, said Demus attorney Milton Campos in a video posted by the group.
One of those women is farmer Inés Condori, who told the Thomson Reuters Foundation she was sterilized in 1995 when she went to a hospital for a check-up after the birth of her fourth child.
She traveled several hours from her remote village to a hospital in the southeastern city of Cusco, helped by a woman she said she met in the street who said she knew how to get there.
At the hospital, she recalls seeing women lying on the floor.
"There were no stretchers. They were shouting, vomiting," Condori said.
Given an injection, she said she woke up hours later in terrible pain.
The hospital staff told her she would no longer have children and would be "young again".
"To this day, I don't know what kind of surgery they did on me," she said.
POOR, ILLITERATE INDIGENOUS WOMEN
Fujimori, in prison for graft and human rights abuses during his 1990-2000 authoritarian rule, was cleared in 2014 of any wrongdoing linked to the program.
Prosecutors have said three of Fujumori's health ministers cannot be held responsible for the forced sterilizations.
Nevertheless, "there are plenty of people involved in this matter who are still enjoying their freedom becausethey haven't been prosecuted," said Sandro Monteblanco, a Lima criminal attorney.
Others have been tried but acquitted, said Monteblanco, an outspoken critic of the government on its handling of the sterilizations.
"Nobody has taken this case and dissected it in order to determineall of the guilty parties," he said.
Monteblanco said he sees little hope that the administration of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, which assumed power in July, will support efforts for the women's cases to move forward.
"It's a taboo that forbids manygovernment officialsfrom daring to make any kind of statement about it," he said.
The state must acknowledge the violence inflicted on the women, said Marina Navarro, AmnestyInternational director in Peru.
"The state is not recognizing its responsibility," she said. "That is the most basic thing that is needed right now."
Many of the women sterilized were indigenous peasants from the nation's poorest areas. Those who signed consent forms in Spanish were illiterate and spoke only the indigenous Quechua language, rights groups say.
Nearly two decades later, many of these women suffer psychological and physical damage, Navarro said.
Condori has been unable to do physically demanding agricultural or domestic work.
"Eventually, thistoowill be yet another horrendous occurrence in the long list of dark occurrences in this country that gets swept under the rug or simply becomes a couple of paragraphs in our history book," Monteblanco said.
(Reporting by Sophie Davies, editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Alisa Tang. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)