Women and their reproductive health are at the center of one of the most severe humanitarian crises in recent memory. Yet, while some may have heard of the persecution of China’s Uyghur minority, the gendered campaign of forced birth control, which many experts say indicates a serious risk of genocide, is less understood. It is a clear violation of international law—but what is less clear is the path forward for accountability.
In November 2019, 403 pages of internal documents from China’s ruling Communist Party were leaked to the global community. They detailed how authorities have corralled as many as a million ethnic Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others into internment camps and prisons over the past three years. Survivors of the camps claim to have experienced extreme conditions, including torture.
Who Are the Uyghurs?
The Uyghurs are a mostly Muslim Turkic ethnicity who regard themselves as culturally and ethnically related to Central Asian nations. There are approximately 11 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang, a Western region that has been under the control of China since it was annexed in 1949.
A History of Systematic Violence Against Uyghurs in China
Uyghurs have long faced economic marginalization and political discrimination as an ethnic minority. As early as 2009, Human Rights Watch has reported disappearances of Uyghur men after an influx of asylum applications from neighboring countries came in from Uyghur citizens of Xinjiang.
In 2017, Chinese President Xi Jinping stepped up a nationwide campaign promoting conformity to the Communist Party doctrine and Han Chinese cultural norms. Under the guise of an “anti-terrorism” campaign, the internment camps and re-education centers—recently referred to as “boarding schools” by Chinese authorities—began to emerge. The campaign was fueled by unconfirmed rumors of Uyghurs going abroad to join the so-called Islamic State.
These reports became the pretext for President Xi’s regulations targeting cultural, political, and religious minorities. New laws began to surface limiting religious practice like prayer and outlawing things like beards, burkas, and face veils—all associated in Xinjiang with the Muslim faith.
Flashforward to 2020: Students are coming home from their exam periods to find their families missing, men are being transported to work hard labor in factories, and others are being detained in multiple locations across Xinjiang. Local officials have scripts for what to tell residents when a loved one goes missing. There are reports that police have ordered a sweep of 40 percent of the adult population. Those that find themselves in an internment camp experience and witness torture in the form of electric shock, water torture, loss of appendages, and being forced to sit on a chair made of nails.
Uyghur Women Particularly at Risk
That all being said, women are especially affected by this campaign of persecution.
Recent reports document plans for forced IUD placement, mandated abortions, and sterilizations and injections that have been reported to cease menstruation cycles.
Uyghur women deemed to have too many children are forced into labor camps for “training purposes.” For example, a Uyghur woman from Urumqi paid a fine for having had three instead of two children and was offered free surgical sterilization. At first this was a suggestion, but later she was threatened that if she did not submit to the procedure, she would be placed in an internment facility.
Another woman, a Uyghur mother of triplets, said that during detention she and other women were given unknown drugs and injections that caused irregular bleeding and a loss of their menstruation cycle. U.S. doctors later confirmed that she had been sterilized.
These measures of “forced birth control” are some of the ways in which Chinese authorities in Xinjiang are utilizing and exploiting women’s reproductive health to further their goal of controlling and potentially destroying the Uyghur population.
What Can Be Done?
The path to individual and state accountability for the crime of mass forced sterilization is not straightforward. A recent series of articles from human rights experts details the complexity of an international response to the situation. China does not accept the jurisdiction of the two international courts intended to deal with such crimes—the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, both based in The Hague.
Adding to the tragedy is the fact that the international community knows what to do when international crimes of this scale are perpetrated—just look at Rwanda, Bosnia, Libya, Sudan, Lebanon, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Syria or Myanmar. The problem is not a lack of options; it is lack of political will. China, and the geopolitical power it wields, have muted attention and outrage.
To its credit, the United States ramped up sanctions on government entities and companies in the Xinjiang region who are involved in the mass internment of Uyghurs.
But we all know it is not enough. Only time will tell what the next move will be for the international community to take further action. But what is certain is that China is allowing a population of women to suffer at the expense of a political agenda fueled by discrimination.
We cannot allow justice to be delayed any longer. World leaders need to stand up to China to put a stop to years of impunity for genocidal policies.