Sterilizing Indigenous Women without Consent is Torture, says UN Committee

(OTTAWA, ON, December 7, 2018) – In a report released today, the United Nations Committee Against Torture officially recognized that sterilizing Indigenous women without consent is a form of torture, and called on Canada to “ensure that all allegations of forced or coerced sterilization are impartially investigated, that the persons responsible are held accountable and that adequate redress is provided to the victims.”

The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), Amnesty International Canada, and Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights strongly support the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture, and call on Canada to:

  • Thoroughly investigate all allegations of forced or coerced sterilizations of Indigenous women in Canada;
  • Establish policies and accountability mechanisms across Canada that provide clear guidance on how to ensure sterilizations are only performed with free, full, and informed consent; and
  • Provide access to justice for survivors and their families.

“Canada’s legacy of colonialism and genocide have led to discrimination against Indigenous women in Canada’s public healthcare system,” said Francyne Joe, President of the Native Women’s Association of Canada. “Sterilizing an Indigenous woman without her free, prior, and informed consent is invasive, medically unnecessary, and a serious violation of her right to life, liberty, and security of the person.”

In October 2017, a class action lawsuit was proposed in Saskatchewan representing more than 60 Indigenous women who say they were sterilized without their consent. Most women reported being sterilized in the last 10-15 years, and as recently as 2017. Since then, women in other provinces have reported they too were sterilized without consent in recent years. How widespread this practice is across Canada is unknown.

“Today’s report from the UN affirmed that sterilizing women without consent is intentional, committed by state officials, causes serious harm, and is rooted in discrimination,” said Jackie Hansen, Gender Rights Campaigner with Amnesty International Canada. “This is the very definition of torture, one of the most egregious human rights violations, and it must be stopped now.”

As a State Party to the UN Convention Against Torture, Canada’s record on preventing and addressing torture and other forms of ill-treatment is periodically reviewed by the UN Committee Against Torture. Canada’s most recent review took place last month in Geneva and the report issued today outlines the Committee’s recommendations stemming from this review. The Committee also called on Canada to adopt laws and policies to prevent and criminalize sterilization without consent, and to clearly define “the requirements of free, prior and informed consent with regard to sterilization and by raising awareness among Indigenous women and medical personnel of that requirement.”

Notably, the Committee has signaled that this deeply troubling human rights concern is of such urgency that Canada has been asked to provide an interim progress report back one year from now, rather than waiting for the next review in five or six years. This means that the Committee has put forced or coerced sterilization high on the list of issues that need to immediately be addressed when it comes to preventing and addressing torture and ill-treatment in Canada.  Governments across Canada must do the same.

“All levels of government and healthcare agencies have a role to play in ending sterilizations without consent. The federal government is a signatory to international human rights treaties and therefore, as duty bearer, needs to exert leadership to end reproductive violence,” said Sarah Kennell, Director of Government Relations at Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. “The federal government must engage provinces in ensuring this does not happen again, in investigating when it does and stopping human rights violations like these across Canada.”

“Too many Indigenous women have experienced trauma, shame, and stigma because they have been permanently sterilized without their consent,” said Francyne Joe. “We have the right to make decisions about our health and our bodies. We have the right to give birth in hospitals without fear. And we need immediate action from the federal government to defend these rights.”

Background information

For more information, or to arrange an interview, please contact:

  • Lucy Juneau, Director of Communications, Native Women’s Association of Canada, 613-722-3033, Mobile 343-997-3756,
  • Lucy Scholey, Media Officer, Amnesty International Canada, 613-744-7667 ext. 236,
  • Ani Colekessian, Director of Communications, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, 613-241-4474 ext. 7,
Posted on 2018-12-07