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While this could be seen as a welcome change to an outdated and unique situation, reality is far more depressing.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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.