Happily married, Emilia is a key leader in a local women's business, and a member of a community support group in Katutura.
Although Emilia is HIV-positive, all three of her children were born HIV-free, thanks to the couple's decision to access medical treatments that prevent the transmission of HIV from the mother to the child, also known as PMTCT.
Emilia is grateful for her three children, yet her family life is punctuated with sorrow and a heavy sense of loss. Five years ago, after the birth of her third child, Emilia made the shocking discovery that she had been sterilised without her consent due to her HIV status.
During her labour, the doctor had performed binary tubal ligation, forever precluding the possibility that she could have more children. It was only months after the procedure, following an information session at a local HIV positive women's support group, that she learned the truth.
Leafing through the pages of her health passport, she was confronted by the letters "BTL," indicating her sterilisation. Reeling from the news, she went home to tell her husband, who was equally dismayed and astounded.
"I feel very bad about what happened to me," commented Emilia. "I want other women to know their rights so it doesn't happen to them."
Emilia's case is not unique. Since 2007, over forty cases of forced sterilisation in public hospitals have emerged, with the likelihood of many more undocumented incidences. Most of the women who are sterilised are economically marginalised, live in informal settlements, are illiterate, and have English as a second language.
Health care professionals often do not explain the finality of sterilisation or the alternative forms of family planning available, despite the availability of medical treatments that lower the risk of mother to child transmission to two per cent. Women are left uninformed and unable to give birth, often traumatised and furious as a result of their sterilised status.
"The impact of involuntary sterilisation can be devastating, affecting a woman's mental and physical health and her relationship with her partner, her family, and society at large," comments Jennifer Gatsi-Mallet, director of the Namibian Women's Health Network, an organisation that has worked tirelessly on this issue.
As more cases have come to light, a growing tide of opposition to the practice of sterilisation and a demand for redress has emerged. "Forced or coerced sterilisation violates numerous rights guaranteed under the Namibian Constitution and Namibia's obligations under international and regional law, including the right to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the right to liberty and security of person; the right to health and family planning; the right to privacy; and, the right to equality and to be free from discrimination," notes Gatsi-Mallet.
Along with human rights abuses, forced sterilisation has a detrimental effect on national efforts to stem the HIV epidemic. For Gatsi-Mallet, this is especially concerning: "Such practices also have serious implications for the health care system as a whole," she remarked. "Fear of discrimination and mistreatment can discourage women from seeking health care services and can undermine the government's public health initiatives around HIV and reproductive health."
Today, the victims of forced sterilisation are awaiting justice. Since 2008, sixteen women have sued the Namibian government for breaching their constitutional rights, and three of the cases have gone to court with the support of the Legal Assistance Centre in Namibia. After several years of campaigning for justice, a final judgement day has been set for July 30, marking a hopeful new epoch in the fight against forced sterilisation.
A favourable verdict cannot rectify the immeasurable loss they have suffered, but it would provide a strong statement about the sanctity of women's rights in Namibia. As this country strives for the normalisation of equity and social justice, the forced sterilisation cases will be a litmus test for Namibia's commitment to the human rights enshrined in their constitution.