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While this could be seen as a welcome change to an outdated and unique situation, reality is far more depressing.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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition