About 3,000 doctors go to Mexico City’s poorest parts looking for pregnant girls as many of them forego pre-natal care.
Eunice Diaz de La Vega was delighted to be pregnant; she’d planned to have a child for some time. As a schizophrenia sufferer, she decided to see her doctors in Mexico City to discuss the challenges she would face raising a child. She was shocked at the reception she got.
“My mum said, ‘Do you think it’s OK that my daughter has this child?’ The psychiatrist said, ‘No she has to abort.’ No one asked me or even looked at me.”
Eunice decided to make her own choice and now has a five-year-old daughter. But she was still angry as she described her experience to me and seven other women gathered around a table in a community centre in Mexico City. It was the bi-weekly meeting of the women’s section of Colectivo Chuhcan, an advocacy and support group made up exclusively of people with psychiatric disabilities who campaign for the rights of fellow sufferers.
The group has heard many stories similar to Eunice’s in the past year. Together with the advocacy group Disability Rights International, Colectivo Chucan has gathered testimonies from 51 women for a new report on the reproductive rights of women with psychosocial disabilities.
They think they can simply take the possibility of a child away from someone with just a couple of words... They just see us as robots.
Their findings are disturbing: 42 percent of the women surveyed said they had been forced or coerced into sterilisation by doctors or family members. A further 43 percent of women who visited a gynaecologist had suffered physical, psychological or sexual abuse. Pregnant women like Eunice, received little support from the government in having and raising their children, the report said.
Natalia Santos, Colectivo Chuhcan director and co-author of the report, herself has schizophrenia. She’s outraged about the lack of understanding shown to fellow sufferers.
“I was so disappointed in the doctors. They think they can simply take the possibility of a child away from someone with just a couple of words, without knowing anything about the patient. They just see us as robots.”
The various nurses and doctors I talked to said that sterilisation was advised on a case-by-case basis, but all admitted that mentally ill women in Mexico were often pressured into the procedure. One student doctor described the process of convincing them as “bombardment”.
Doctors argued that mothers with psychiatric disabilities could pass on their illnesses and were often unable to raise their children.
One psychologist, Dr Miriam de la Llera, who has worked at a Mexican state psychiatric hospital for over 20 years, said that doctors often see sterilisation as a quick and easy solution to an issue they don’t have the support or training to deal with more moderately.
“There’s a lack of education not just for families and patients, but also for doctors and we need to take this issue more seriously,” she said. “There should be legislation and at least a medical policy to offer training on patients’ rights.”
Sexual abuse and sterilisation are likely to be far more widespread within closed-door psychiatric facilities, where staff are appointed legal guardians of abandoned women and have near total control over them, says Disability Rights International.
On one of the rare occasions the organisation was allowed into one of these institutions, the director told them that: “All of the girls have to be sterilised.” Disability Rights International believes this is to avoid pregnancies that are the result of sexual abuse, something which they say they’ve found is common in closed-door institutions.
One morning we accompanied Colectivo Chuhcan and Disability Rights International to talk to the outpatients of a psychiatric hospital in Mexico City, and an initially reluctant young woman ended up telling the story of an operation performed on her that a doctor told her only afterwards would mean she would “never have children again”. This was later confirmed to her by another physician, she said.
The authors of the report are hoping that by uncovering and publicising this type of incident, the rights of women with psychosocial disabilities in Mexico will be increasingly difficult to ignore.