Gulistan, Uzbekistan Saodat Rakhimbayeva says she wishes she had died with her newborn baby.
The 24-year-old housewife had a cesarean section in March and gave birth to Ibrohim, a premature boy who died three days later.
Then came a further devastating blow: She learned that the surgeon had removed part of her uterus during the operation, making her sterile. The doctor told her the hysterectomy was necessary to remove a potentially cancerous cyst, while she believes he sterilized her as part of a state campaign to reduce birthrates.
“He never asked for my approval, never ran any checks, just mutilated me as if I were a mute animal,” the pale and fragile Rakhimbayeva said through tears while sitting at a fly-infested cafe in this central Uzbek city. “I should have just died with Ibrohim.”
According to rights groups, victims and health officials, Rakhimbayeva is one of hundreds of Uzbek women who have been surgically sterilized without their knowledge or consent in a program designed to prevent overpopulation from fueling unrest.
Human rights advocates and doctors say autocratic President Islam Karimov this year ramped up a sterilization campaign he initiated in the late 1990s. In a decree issued in February, the Health Ministry ordered all medical facilities to “strengthen control over the medical examination of women of childbearing age.”
The decree also said that “surgical contraception should be provided free of charge” to women who volunteer for the procedure.
It did not specifically mandate sterilizations, but critics allege that doctors have come under direct pressure from the government to perform them: “The order comes from the very top,” said Khaitboy Yakubov, head of the Najot human rights group in Uzbekistan.
Uzbek authorities ignored numerous requests by The Associated Press to comment on the issue.
Most Western media organizations have been driven from the country, and government officials face serious reprisals for contacts with foreign journalists. However, the AP was able to interview several doctors, sterilized women and a former health official, some on condition of anonymity.
This Central Asian nation of 27 million is the size of California or Iraq, and population density in areas such as the fertile Ferghana Valley is among the world’s highest.
Rights groups say the government is dealing with poverty, unemployment and severe economic and environmental problems that have triggered an exodus of Uzbek labor migrants to Russia and other countries.
Heightening the government’s fears is the specter of legions of jobless men in predominantly Muslim Uzbekistan succumbing to the lure of Islamic radical groups with ties to Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida.
Uzbekistan is not alone in coming under allegations of using sterilizations to fight population growth: Authorities in China’s Guangdong Province were accused by Amnesty International in April of carrying out coerced sterilizations to meet family planning goals. But no other country is known to use that method as a government policy.
Uzbekistan once had one of the Soviet Union’s highest birthrates, four to five children per woman, and Communist authorities even handed out medals to “heroine” mothers of six or more. Young army conscripts from Uzbekistan and the four other Central Asian republics made up for a declining ethnic Russian population.
Now, as authorities try to unravel that legacy, the birthrate has dropped to about 2.3 children per woman — still higher than the rate of 2.1 that demographers consider sufficient to replenish a falling population.
The sterilization campaign involves thousands of government-employed medical doctors and nurses who urge women of childbearing age, especially those with two or more children, to have hysterectomies or fallopian tube ligations, said Sukhrobjon Ismoilov of the Expert Working Group, an independent think tank based in the capital, Tashkent.
In 2007, the U.N. Committee Against Torture reported a “large number” of cases of forced sterilization and removal of reproductive organs in Uzbek women, often after cesarean sections. Some women were abandoned by their husbands as a result, it said.