502 girls and 127 boys with learning disabilities such as Down syndrome were permanently sterilized between 2009 and 2011, according to reports by the Ministry of Health.
In an interview with El Espectador Monica Cortes, founder of human rights organization Asdown said that more needs to be done to protect the sexual rights of people with learning difficulties in Colombia.
According to Cortes, a concerning amount of young people with learning disabilities are undertaking non-reversible sterilization on the recommendation of Colombian doctors. Families are attending Colombia Pro-familia Sexual Health Clinics daily to request sterilization for their children with learning disabilities.
“When the girls begin to develop sexually, the families begin to panic. They go to the doctors and the first thing that they are recommended is this permanent method of birth control,” said Cortes.
Cortes argues that the high level of sterilizations in Colombia represents a general ignorance about learning disabilities and a breach of the human rights for people with conditions such as autism and downs syndrome.
Additionally, the general public holds misconceptions about people with learning difficulties, viewing them as asexual and devoid of sexual feelings or the ability to have a relationship, marry, and have children.
According the the US National Down Syndrome Society, people with these conditions develop sexually in exactly the same way as anyone else, and thus will begin to have sexual feelings, and urges at the same age as people who don’t have the condition. The differences can be seen in the development of social maturity, emotional self-control, social communication and problem solving abilities.
Experts stress that a cohesive program of sexual education is needed for people with learning difficulties to ensure that they understand their own bodies, and the changes that occur when maturing. They should also be given information and guidance in relation to sexual health and contraceptive options.
While tubal ligation (permanent sterilization through surgery) is a medical option used worldwide, experts stress that normal methods of contraception for women such as the birth control pill and contraceptive implants are also viable options. Roughly 50% of women with downs syndrome are fertile and able to have children.
Cortes argues that more needs to be done to protect the rights of people with learning disabilities, as the current legal system which should be protecting them is allowing families to make life-changing decisions for their children with very little concern for their future wishes.
In 2010 the 1412 act banned surgical contraception for all minors. For those above 18 years of age the operation may be undertaken if a judge certifies that the person cannot make decisions for themselves, thus passing the decision to a third party, normally a family member.
However, this year a group of young people petitioned the courts to allow sterilization of youngsters as a means of protecting them from unwanted pregnancies and sexual abuse. Authorities subsequently responded with a decree stating that sterilization offered a better quality of life for those who were not in a position to make decisions for themselves.
For Andrea Parra, executive director of the Program of Action for Equality and Social Inclusion in Colombia (PAIIS), allowing sterilization based on the wishes of a family members will not protect the affected person from sexual abuse, and further adds to their vulnerability.
Parra argues that more attention must be given to educating people with learning difficulties about sexual health, contraception and the consequences of sterilization, rather than passing control to family members. Experts say that weak legislation is allowing important decisions to be made for people who should be assisted in making those decisions themselves, rather than being viewed as incapable and entirely represented by a third party.