Maria Ysabel Cedano is the Director of el Estudio para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (DEMUS). DEMUS is a Peruvian feminist organization that defends human rights particularly, women’s sexual and reproductive rights. They promote free choice and question the hegemonic cultural paradigm over women and their sexuality.
Q: Why don’t you start by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you got to el Estudio para la Defensa de los Derechos de la Mujer (DEMUS)?
I was studying law at the Pontifical University of Peru and as part of the curriculum I had to complete a professional requirement and that took me to DEMUS. This coming May I celebrate 27 years in the organization. I have only left DEMUS twice; once to work for the Women’s Ministry under Humala’s government and recently when I ran for Congress. Other than these two experiences I have always been at DEMUS. I started my practice there and never left. I was not a feminist activist in the University but I was a leftist human rights activist who believed in women’s equality, but I did not have a feminist perspective. The formation of my feminist perspective really came to fruition with DEMUS.
Q: Can you explain your experience litigating the case on forced sterilizations for so many years and what have been some of the frustrations given that the prosecutor’s office continues to dismiss the case?
Look, there are moments of deception and frustration but I think that DEMUS and the people that work there are committed to justice and reparations for the victims of forced sterilization and the victims of sexual violence during the armed conflict. This struggle is part of our life project and we know it won’t be easy, but our contribution is to pay this historic debt and make the State compromise with these indigenous, rural, and poor women. I think that these types of cases can give a meaning to a person’s existence because this cause allows for the promotion of justice and vindication of indigenous and rural women. At this moment there is an adverse crisis and we know this is not the end. We still have the universal system, the Inter-American system, and we know that we won’t lose the case because we did something wrong or because of a technicality. We know that if we lose, it is because we have an enemy in front of us, a powerful enemy with political influence in the judicial system. Certain prosecutors have tried hard to reinforce their theory of the case and their arguments but they don’t even take into account minimum international human rights standards or standards for crimes against humanity. They don’t cite a single judgement or doctrine in their arguments.
I know the case from the first complaints filed in 1996 or 1997. I began at DEMUS in 1990 and later became an assistant lawyer. At that time cases began arriving at DEMUS and, for example, we were working on case of a widower looking for justice because his wife was pressured into sterilization and subsequently died of a hemorrhage. She was told that post-operation she could go home and continue her daily routine. This woman lived in the jungle and once she got home she began bleeding but couldn’t make it to the closest health center. That case was just one example of the types of cases DEMUS handled. There were other sterilization cases were women did not recognize the signature on the consent form. Everything was done in such a compulsive and disorganized way that women did not realize they had been sterilized until it was too late.
At that time we were thinking of prosecuting these cases under domestic criminal law not about violations of human rights or international criminal law. Flora Tristan and other feminist organizations found more women asking for legal counseling. At the same time, a project called Reprosalud was documenting sterilizations and vasectomies and began to see problems of informed consent. All these organizations are now part of CLADEM so we continue to exchange ideas. Giulia Tamayo, a famous Peruvian feminist lawyer who is now deceased, actually began the investigation into sterilizations and discovered that these were not common crimes. Giulia had the vision to pursue sterilizations as a violation of international human rights law because these crimes were perpetrated by state agents. Although she only saw it as a human rights violation at the time, investigations and developments in the global feminist movement changed her mind.
The Church was also opposed to Fujimori’s legalization of sterilizations and vasectomies as contraceptive methods. For the Church, only God can decide what happens to a person’s body. The Church started protesting, but soon they were joined by the progressive sector who felt compelled to get involved once they saw women were dying from these procedures. A priest in Cajamarca brought Mamerita Mestanza’s case to us because he had supported the complaint in Cajamarca around the time Giulia was investigating.
Giulia found that, culturally, health personnel did not feel they were committing crimes; they asserted that they were following orders, and it benefitted women by giving them opportunity to have fewer children. These health professionals showed Giulia the practices and procedures for sterilization. Based on this information and the growing global feminist movement Giulia began to view sterilization as a crime against humanity. There were indicators that this process of sterilization was a systematic attack on the civilian population, so lawyers began looking for jurisprudence and international standards to support this charge. This was completely new and advanced approach.
What moments have been most important? Every time we have gotten procedures modified or forced the health sector take preventive steps have been very important. The Inter-American system has also been critical in this case. The Commission has been able to state unequivocally that this is a grave human rights violation. The case was re-opened in 2011 when the Commission called attention to questionable investigative measures taken by the State. I’ve been with this case since the beginning and I’ve never felt isolated because CLADEM and other organizations from the women’s movement are all passionately involved. It’s almost like a struggle to divide our strength. The case was partially dismissed in 2014 but we got it reopened in May and we are hopeful about the resolution.
Q: What are the next steps for the case?
DEMUS and the Instituto Legal de Defensa (IDL) have filed an appeal with the Prosecutor’s Office and a senior prosecutor will determine the outcome of the appeal. Prosecutor Landa, the same prosecutor that resolved the Manta y Vilca case, will be looking at it. The difference is that in the Manta y Vilca case there was a link of the command responsibility of the perpetrators. It’s harder to address command responsibility in sterilization. Even though he knows what are the elements to argue for a crime against humanity and what a state apparatus looks like we still may not be successful. We plan to reinforce these actions with an amicus brief. But in the meantime we are waiting for him to resolve it.
Q: What is the role of the Inter-American system in the next steps? Is there a way to force the government to comply with the Friendly Settlement of Mamerita Mestanza?
We are getting to the limits of the Mamerita case, specifically because of political weakness of the Commission, the economic crisis, and the change in Rapporteur from Cavallaro to Vannuchi. I’m not saying the Commission won’t work, it can play a very important role. The government has shown it’s completely paralyzed by fujimorismo and there are certain topics that cannot be approached because of the troublesome nature of these issues.
Forced sterilizations is one of these topics. The governments says these issues are too delicate to address and will cause political problems. But in reality, they don’t want to do anything. We agree that we need a strategy to mobilize the Commission and hopefully when I get to Lima I will have a meeting with Somos 2, 074 which is part of the forced sterilization campaign. We have seen the importance of mobilizing citizens and social movements to expand beyond the realm of academics, and people with experience in the field. We need everyone in order to hold the State accountable. We are also going to pressure the Commission. We want a thematic audience on forced sterilization and this is the third time we have asked for it. In 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2015 the Commission played a very important role in re-opening the case to promote an investigation using both a gendered perspective and a human rights perspective.
Q: What is the best way to compensate the victims? What kind of compensation to the victims prefer?
Thanks to organizations such as Movimiento Amplio de las Mujeres, women have organized in the provinces and there are victim organizations looking to create a national association for victims of forced sterilizations. There are new groups forming in Ayacucho where many women were sterilized and thought they had been sent a plague. Originally these women did not know that sterilization was happening across the country. This process has allowed them to voice with clarity what they want. They want justice and they want a judgement, not only of the direct actors but of those with knowledge of the attack who were part of the command responsibility. They want a criminal process that is both symbolic and establishes material reparations for these women. In terms of reparations, many say that economic and symbolic reparations should come later, and health care should be a primary focus because many of the women are getting sick and have nowhere to go.
One of the agreements from the December 2, 2016 meeting in Panama was that the government would convene civil society and the victims for another exploratory meeting to create a working group and design a policy for reparations. Before leaving, Commissioner Cavallaro asked the Peruvian state: what is missing in terms of compensation? Why are you waiting for a trial that may take a long time? The State responded that it didn’t know how many women were affected and Cavallaro responded that the State should start by creating a registry. The women have become the protagonists of many campaigns and have coordinated campaigns with human rights organizations like Amnesty International.
We had a consultation and the women decided they wanted symbolic reparations to show that their social and reproductive functions are valued within their communities. Many were abandoned by their husbands after their sterilization, stating that these women were no longer attractive. Additionally, these women were getting sick more often because of the sterilization so they could not do any hard work. I think that the victims want recognition from the government, just as we do, and at least addresses their health issues. When the working group is established we will see if the women want more.
Q: Do you have any advice for young professionals in the field of human rights or those that would like to work in the field of human rights?
I think, for example, that one learns. There are moments in which the legal tools and the jurisprudence just aren’t there. But law is a developing field, a creation of the people, and that means forcing the system and its fissures. I did not learn feminist theory at the University. I learned it in practice working at NGOs and with networks such as CLADEM where we began to identify the patriarchal, central avenues of law as well as the advantages and opportunities that can be used to transform the law. I think that is one of the advantages of the new generation because law schools teach a gender perspective and there is jurisprudence and cases like the ones from Peru. We can make a tool out of the law but there are human rights violations and crimes against humanity that remain invisible and affect not only the invisible but fissures of society that depend on the right to truth and reparation. I believe you cannot talk about democracy, equality, autonomy while crimes against women continue with impunity. These types of cases test the basis of democracy and the content of human rights law. That is what we are fighting for, to have a society where we can all be equal and free.