Sterilising The Poor: A Civilised Solution?

A woman and her three children at a malnutrition ward in Al Shabbab hospital, Juba. More than five million South Sudanese are in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran

Let’s cut to the chase: if your argument comes down to compulsorily sterilising people, you’ve lost.

Why? Because from accepting sterilisation as a valid solution, it’s only a short, horrifying jump to full-on genocide.

But we hear it. Time and time and time again.

“Stop breeding, problem solved.”

“These people have been on unsustainable land forever… let’s get real. Sterilise everyone there!!!!”

“Why is the civilised world held to ransom every time a poor country in the third world decides to overpopulate itself?”

Lona Alfren holds her one-year-old son, Emmanuel John, at a malnutrition ward in Juba. More than one million children in South Sudan are at risk over coming months. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran

Those are actual comments from UNICEF NZ’s Facebook page, in response to the devastating famine creeping across South Sudan.

It’s not, as a lot of commenters claim, a regular occurrence. It is, in fact, the world’s first famine in seven years, and just the second since 2000.

How civilised is it to happily stand by as citizens of one of the poorest countries on Earth die a slow death from starvation?

Here’s a question — how civilised is it to happily stand by as citizens of one of the poorest countries on Earth die a slow death from starvation?

Ongoing insecurity, combined with an economic crisis that has pushed inflation above 800 percent, has also created widespread food insecurity, with malnutrition among children having reached emergency levels in most parts of the country.

“Teach them birth control or sterilise them…Do something positive.”

‘Sterilisation: the positive solution.’ As far as slogans go, it’s not a great one.

War and a collapsing economy have left some 100,000 people facing starvation in parts of South Sudan.

Now, before we get into arguments about birth control, I need to address something which really shouldn’t need addressing:

These children are here. They are starving. They need our help. No amount of arguing about birth control will change that, and any suggestion they shouldn’t get help until their parents are sterilised is simply condemning them to death.

That is not the response of a “civilised” society.

And it ignores a cruel reality.

The total number of people in need could soon rise to more than five million. Photo: Siegfried Modola

People in South Sudan have fled their homes, with all the worldly possessions they can carry, seeking safe refuge among the sands and swamps.

Their villages have been burned. Their families and neighbours killed.

Often, they have been left with no food, no money, no animals.

Nipping out to the chemist for some Durex? You may as well ask them to fly to the moon.

Regardless of all that, UNICEF does help with family planning, by educating millions of people throughout the world.

Nipping out to the chemist for some Durex? You may as well ask them to fly to the moon.

Then there’s the United Nations Population Fund — our sister organisation formed to assist with birth control, contraception, and family planning in the world’s poorest countries, ensuring a safer experience for mothers and children.

Family planning is a conversation that must be had in partnership. You can’t simply hold people to ransom — “get the snip, and you’ll get your food.”

That wouldn’t be civilised.

In 2016, UNICEF admitted 184,000 children for treatment of severe malnutrition. Photo: Albert Gonzalez Farran

Let’s not pretend that without New Zealand’s level of education, wealth, peaceful and stable government, and easy access to contraceptives, family sizes would be much different here.

My grandfather was one of 10 children. Our current Prime Minister is one of 11 kids. It’s only relatively recently that average family sizes have shrunk.

The sterilisation argument does nothing to address the situation at hand, or recognise the cultural and societal values at play, or simply respect the dignity and humanity of the people involved.

It’s a terrible argument that’s almost exclusively used for poor people. Or black people. Or African people. Or in this case, all three.

It’s a terrible argument that’s almost exclusively used for poor people. Or black people. Or African people. Or in this case, all three.

In South Sudan, 100,000 children need urgent attention to prevent them starving to death. Millions more children throughout Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Kenya, and Ethiopia are also at risk.

The UN has called it the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War Two.

Around 20 million people will starve if nothing is done.

Agencies like UNICEF are frantically trying to prevent famine spreading further — providing food and medical attention to millions of children and their families.

We need all the support we can get.

These are some of the poorest people, living in some of the poorest countries on Earth.

But there are still doubters.

This comment was posted beneath the picture of a severely-malnourished South Sudanese child, a one-year-old boy called Awane, receiving emergency treatment at a UNICEF clinic:

“That child doesn’t look starved.”

Awane is one year old, but weighs the same as a new born baby. He is being treated at a UNICEF malnutrition treatment clinic in Maiduguri, Nigeria. © UNICEF/UN044746/Commins

When I was a reporter for the current affairs programme Campbell Live, we’d receive similar comments whenever we did a story about child poverty in New Zealand.

People would say things like: “That’s not real poverty, not like in Africa.”

And yet, when we have an actual famine in Africa, and children are starving to death, some people still believe those children still aren’t suffering enough to warrant a response.

I wonder, do the people writing those comments really care about birth control, or famine, or the physical condition of a starving child, or are they just searching for something to rail against?

Because rather than feeling indignant or indifferent about the plight of an innocent child, I know I’m happy to live in a country where the vast majority of us are willing to respond to people’s needs — wherever and whatever they are.

Isn’t that a sign of being human?

It’s certainly a sign of being civilised.

To support UNICEF’s work with children around the world, click here.

Elizabeth Kegi, a one-year-old with severe malnutrition, rests on her mother’s lap at the malnutrition ward in Al Shabbab hospital in Juba. Photo: Albert Gonzalez