Why is sterilisation still being forced on transgender people?

Compensation demanded in Sweden.

A group of Swedish transgender people are demanding 42.6m kronor (approximately £4.8m) from the state for having been forced to be sterilised before undergoing gender reassignment surgery.

The individuals, part of the estimated 865 who were told to accept the procedure in order to have their gender recognized in law, also want an official apology from the government.

According to the Swedish Federation for Lesbian, Gay and Transgender Rights (RFSL), around 500 people were coerced into sterilisation between 1972 and 2012.

Speaking to AFP, RFSL leader Ulrika Westerlund said: "our starting point is to ask for 300,000 kronor per person. This amount is based on both the level of compensation for victims of forced sterilisation in Sweden and on the level determined by the European Court of Justice in similar cases."

The law finally changed in January this year following widespread outrage at the little known practice, and after the Stockholm administrative court of appeal ruled in December that it was unconstitutional.

Another report from the Council of Europe, created for the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development of the Parliamentary Assembly, called the practice a "major abuse of human rights",  and stated that it had to stop.

While this could be seen as a welcome change to an outdated and unique situation, reality is far more depressing. The recent events in Sweden simply mean that it has joined the incredibly small minority of EU countries who do not demand that transgender people are sterilised, along with the United Kingdom, Spain and Portugal. Hungary does not demand it either, though it can be argued that the country tends to try and avoid the problem completely.

The issue was first raised on the EU level in 2010, when member states where told that they should review their policies, but sadly, the reports that followed indicated that most countries were very eager to ignore the issue.

Heavy criticisms also came from a report published by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, who called for countries to “outlaw forced or coerced sterilization in all circumstances” in February 2013. Once again, this did not lead to any reforms, or even promises of future changes.

One of the possible explanations behind this incredible unwillingness to abolish such a horrific and backwards practice would be the complete unawareness of the public on the subject. This was easily proved with the Swedish case, when a petition against forced sterilization posted online by AllOut easily reached nearly 80,000 signatures.

The obvious question to ask then, would be: why stop at Sweden? If this reform can be triggered relatively easily by informing people of what is happening, why is there such a deafening silence around the issue?

While LGBT organisations campaigning for equal marriage should be applauded, it would also be important to remember that there are a lot of pressing issues that need to be talked about, sooner rather than later.

Swedish transgender people are demanding 42.6m krona compensation. Photograph: Getty Images

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue