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1 October 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 8:06am

Forced abortion and secret sterilisation: how China has abused Uighur women for decades

Women from China's Uighur minority reveal how the country's family planning policies, which have long controlled women’s bodies, have been weaponised against them.  

By Ellen Halliday

Reyhan was a dancer, three years married and with a toddler in tow when doctors sterilised her without consent. Under the cover of a surgical abortion – the second that her boss and China’s family planning laws demanded – medics secretly sewed up part of her uterus in 2006.

For six years, Reyhan, a Uighur, could not explain why a sneeze sent pain ripping through her abdomen. In 2011, she fled growing state-directed repression in her native Xinjiang, the region in northwest China which Uighurs call East Turkestan, and settled the following year in Belgium.

Desperate for another child but unable to conceive, Reyhan went to the hospital, where medics eventually discovered her covert sterilisation. “I was so shocked, and so were the doctors,” Reyhan, now 44, recalled. “They could not believe that this was being done to women in this world.”

China’s repression of Uighurs, Kazakhs and other mostly Muslim minorities in strictly controlled Xinjiang has been well hidden. Yet evidence of egregious human rights abuses perpetrated under the direction of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is mounting.

A report published in June used official Chinese documents and survivor testimonies to show that the state has enacted a policy of mass sterilisation and compulsory intrauterine device (IUD) use on ethnic minority women. Just 1.8 per cent of China’s population live in Xinjiang, yet 80 per cent of the country’s new IUD placements were performed in the mostly Uighur region. Birth rates collapsed and natural population growth fell 84 per cent in the two largest regional prefectures from 2015-18.

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The report’s author, independent researcher Dr Adrian Zenz, also found documents revealing that rural Uighur regions planned to sterilise between 14 and 34 per cent of married women of childbearing age in 2019. Dr Zenz has called it “demographic genocide”.

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Women across the global Uighur diaspora have, since 2018, spoken about mass detentions, arbitrary arrests and intimidation of Uighurs by the Chinese state. For Reyhan and four other women who fled Xinjiang to Belgium between 2011 and 2015, these latest reports of mass sterilisation came as no surprise – as they explained gathered together with a Uighur translator over a video-call.

Their first-hand experiences of China’s family planning policies show that such coercion dates back decades. Doctors sterilised Ghunchem, now 44, by cutting her fallopian tubes without consent, likely during the caesarian section delivery of her second child in 2008. Raziya suffered crippling pain for five years after Xinjiang doctors implanted a sub-standard IUD too close to her ovaries in 2014. She was unable to lift heavy items or stand unassisted during her period and for three days either side.

In 2007, doctors sterilised 35-year-old Rabiye – she suspects it also took place during a caesarean section. When Xinjiang doctors told her, two years later, that she could not have another child and would likely live 15 years less than expected, Rabiye hugged her husband and wept. Now in the grip of menopause, her trauma is palpable. “I feel like hurting myself, like killing myself,” she said.

Reyhangul was conscious when doctors surgically aborted the four-month-old foetus she longed to keep in 1999. “I could feel him struggle,” she said, catching her breath between tears. The Uighur mother was subsequently given a painful IUD and, when she asked for it to be removed three years later, doctors inserted a vaginal ring but left the IUD in place.

“I was so angry, but I could not do anything. There were many Uighur women in my neighbourhood and they all visited the same doctor who put two IUDs inside me. There will be many victims like me,” she said.

Vanessa Frangville, senior lecturer and chair in Chinese studies at the Université libre de Bruxelles, has collected and analysed testimonies from women across the Uighur diaspora. “Systematic forced abortion and sterilisation without consent have been reported repeatedly in the past ten years. We can clearly see in these testimonies that the control of female bodies concurs with other forms of social and economic control: access to jobs, housing, schools, and more than anything, the spread of fear,” she said.

Dr Leta Hong Fincher, author of Betraying Big Brother: The Feminist Awakening in China, argues China’s ongoing persecution of Uighur, Kazakh and other mostly Muslim minority women is the latest stage in decades of social engineering.

“Force has always been integral to China’s population planning policy. It enshrined gender equality into its constitution, but since the founding of the communist nation in 1949, the government has viewed women really as reproductive agents,” she said.

“The kind of things that you are seeing being done to Uighur and Kazakh women now was being done all across the country when the “one-child” policy was enforced at its most draconian in the 1980s,” she added.

Until 2015, women from the Han Chinese majority living in cities were allowed just one baby whilst women from ethnic minorities were officially permitted up to three. The state allegedly used the same tools now reported by Uighur women – forced abortion, sterilisation, compulsory birth control and mass, forced insertion of IUDs – to quash the country’s birthrate. However, in practice, family planning laws were never uniformly enforced and – by paying a fine or capitalising on connections with local officials – ethnic minority families often had more than the rules allowed. The five Uighur women interviewed for this report were all told they could have two children, so long as there were three years in between.

From 2016, the state permitted women in cities to have two children. In 2017, this restriction was applied to ethnic minorities, too, in the name of ethnic equality. Yet for Dr Hong Fincher, China’s population planning now reeks of eugenics.

“Even as officials urge college-educated Han Chinese women to marry and get pregnant, they are discouraging, sometimes through coercion, ethnic minority women they regard as ‘low quality’ (di suzhi) – in particular Uighur women in the north-west region of Xinjiang – from having more children.”

“It is not simply that the government wants to control the number of babies being produced. They want to control which kind of babies are being produced,” she added.

For Uighur, Kazakh and other ethnic minority women in China, the outlook is undeniably grim. 

Despite mounting international pressure, the Chinese Communist Party continues to defend its mass detention of over a million people under the guise of “vocational training”. while denying all accusations of genocide. Researchers at Australian think tank ASPI have located over 380 suspected detention camps in Xinjiang – more than previously identified. Beijing admits the Uighur birth rate has dropped by almost a third in 2018 but denies it results from forced sterilisation.

“The most powerful authoritarian regime in the world has, under [President] Xi Jinping, proven themselves willing to deploy a lot of force to implement even more repressive policies than in the past,” said Dr Hong Fincher. “If you are not part of the majority Han Chinese population it’s very difficult to see any light at all.”

Safe now in Belgium, the five Uighur women cannot help but weep. When they left Xinjiang, they left their home, families and friends behind. Each bears the trauma not only of their own experiences but of their survival.

“In some ways – maybe in all ways – there was no freedom in East Turkestan,” said Reyhan. “We could not make our own choices, or keep our right to have a baby.”

“But we escaped. We are lucky. So many women in our region now suffer what we suffered. I want them to have children whenever they want. I want them to be free.”

An infant is passed into Reyhan’s arms. After corrective surgery and five unsuccessful rounds of IVF, she conceived a child naturally and gave birth to a baby girl on 2 September 2019. “It was a miracle,” she smiles

She named the child born in freedom Bushra: the good omen, the good news.

Some names have been changed to protect the identities of the women and their families.

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