At least 11 women have died and 62 were hospitalized after undergoing sterilization surgery at a government-run mobile health clinic in India, authorities said.
Those killed and injured were among more than 80 women who had come to a “camp” for sterilization surgery in Bilaspur district in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, said R.K. Vange, chief medical health officer for the area. The women were each paid 1,400 rupees ($23) to undergo the procedure.
It’s part of a decades-long, government-wide initiative to curb population growth in the world’s second-most populous nation. The program is not forced or required, but reproductive health activists say it’s unethical.
The sterilizations took place on Saturday, Vange said. Many of the women developed complications by Monday, with four different hospitals taking in patients.
Six of the dozens being treated were in critical condition Tuesday, according to hospital officials.
District officials have ordered an investigation and the results of autopsies are expected by Wednesday, Vange added.
Four local health department officials have been suspended in the wake of the deaths and hospitalizations, according to Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh’s office.
According to Dr. R K Gupta, the surgeon who performed Saturday’s sterilizations, 83 women had the surgery in six hours at the mobile clinic. He said Wednesday he was assisted by two other doctors.
While deaths as a result of these sterilization drives are not commonplace, activists hope this incident will urge the government to reevaluate its birth control initiatives and update basic health infrastructure in the country.
Human Rights Watch has condemned sterilization drives by Indian health officials to curb population growth. Women are often paid or coerced to undergo surgery in unsanitary conditions.
The group has urged India to focus more efforts on contraception and male vasectomies, which are far less dangerous procedures.
“This is devastating news and this is certainly shocking to hear, but we cannot say we are totally surprised by this,” said Kerry McBroom, director of the Reproductive Rights Initiative at the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi. “It was almost inevitable, given the unsafe, unethical and unhygienic conditions that persist throughout India in these camps.”
Such camps have been increasingly common amid government population control efforts, McBroom told CNN. Often, women are coerced into participating by healthcare professionals, she said, and the clinics are held in unsanitary locations.
“You might find that there is no electricity, there is no running water, there is not enough staff in these facilities. They won’t have things like blood, in case someone hemorrhages. … they won’t have enough gloves or aprons,” she said. “Women will go to the facility wearing their clothing and remain in that facility until they go. So there is no attention paid to basic prevention.”
Hundreds of people have been killed during sterilization, McBroom said, citing government data on payouts to victims who have died.
“I think that is a gross underestimate of the actual number of deaths,” she said. “We haven’t seen this much carnage in the wake of a sterilization camp and it is incredibly devastating because activists throughout India have been ringing the bell on this for years.”