Making silenced voices heard

272,000 women and 21,000 men were sterilised in the 90’s in Peru. Thousands have claimed this happened without their consent, but until now they have been repeatedly silenced and denied justice. Their voices can finally be heard through The Quipu Project.

As we near the end of REACT, we wanted to take the time to share some stories from members of our network. Second in our series is a piece by REACT's Research Fellow, Simon Moreton, in conversation with the team behind The Quipu Project, one of the Future Documentary Sandbox projects which launched in December. 

In the mid-1990s, President Alberto Fujimori unveiled details of Peru’s voluntary surgical contraception (VSC) programme. The policy lifted strict contraception laws, allowing, amongst other things, women to undergo sterilization procedures without their husband’s permission in an attempt to lower birthrates and help women return to the workforce in a bid to modernise the nation’s economy.

An independent report estimated that between the years 1995 and 2000, up to 346,219 women and 24,535 men were sterilized as part of the programme. But in the late 1990s accounts began to emerge via women’s rights groups that many of the sterilisations were being carried out without proper consent. Since then, over 2,000 women have come forward to state they were victims of an aggressive programme of enforced sterilisations that has left them with life long mental and physical scars.

For the last two years, The Quipu Project – a collaboration between documentary production company Chaka Studios, creative technologist Ewan Cass-Kavanagh, and Matthew Brown and Karen Tucker from the University of Bristol – has been working to raise awareness of these events. The team have been creating an interactive audio archive, which records and shares the growing number of testimonies of those affected by enforced sterilisation. The accounts are harrowing,  ranging from misinformation and blackmail through to kidnap, violence, and procedures administered under duress.

“Women were checking in to hospitals with conditions such as appendicitis and came out having been sterilised” says Brown. Many of those targeted were from poor indigenous communities in remote, rural areas with low levels of literacy and whose first language was either Quechua or Aymara. The language of the state, Spanish, was used to communicate information about the operations. “Medical personnel didn’t always bother translating”, explains Rosemarie Lerner of Chaka Studio, meaning even those who did consent often did so without fully understanding what was happening.

Brown notes that state sanctioned quotas, although denied by officials, almost certainly drove the numbers of risky or unconsented procedures. “Officials went looking for the easiest targets” he adds. Compounded by their geographic marginalisation within Peru and linguistic and cultural differences, those most heavily targeted by the programme weren’t able to raise the alarm. “It was almost a punishment just for being indigenous” remarks Brown.

Now Quipu have established an automated hotline for those affected by the policy to call and record their stories. Mobile telephones, pre-programmed with the hotline number are distributed in local communities, and landlines established in community centres. “We want to help them make their voices heard in their own language and be acknowledged” says Lerner. “We chose mobile phones because they are accessible technologies in many areas of Peru, but also because the people there already use these and are very comfortable with them” she adds ”If we had tried to impose an alien tool on them, like a smartphone, the participation wouldn’t be the same.” 

The very act of recording their stories has helped a groundswell of people come forward to share their experiences. “For many women who have participated this has been the first time they have shared their stories.  Listening to others sharing similar experiences has encouraged some of them to speak out”. The archive is now growing with stories from across the country. Brown suggests that its value will be as a resource that is archived digitally and securely.

It’s also hoped that the storytelling power of Quipu will now help a larger movement of victims, activists, NGOs, lawyers, and campaigners seeking justice for the victims. Alberto Fujimori is currently serving a prison sentence for corruption and human rights abuses, but the forced sterilisations were not part of his prosecution, and attempts to bring legal action against those responsible have led nowhere. Official investigations have been started and subsequently archived by the state, reflecting years of political corruption and institutionalised racism against Peru’s indigenous communities.

The timing of the project is also crucial: Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of Alberto, is running for government in April 2016 and there is a very real concern that if she comes to power, she will pardon her father. But one final feature of the Quipu Project hopes to influence, not just the national but also, the global consciousness of this story and the outcome of that election.

The stories provided by the victims have also become part of a website where users across the world can browse the archive and listen to the audio testimonies, in the language in which they were recorded. They are as moving and powerful as they are shocking. Never dubbed, only subtitled, the women’s voices come through clear and defiant. “These are women whose voices have not been heard” says Brown “and that’s why we wanted to put their voices at the centre”. 

Listeners can even record messages of support that are translated and passed back to the women via the phone lines. It’s a moment where we’re reminded that technology is only part of this story; instead it is a combination of tools, determination, and courage that is working to support a whole generation of women and men fighting back against their persecution. The true power is in their voice, being heard in Peru and around the world.

Quipu was launched in December 2015, head to to find out more. This piece originally appeared in our REACT Newspaper