Supporters of three HIV-positive women in Namibia who say they were sterilized without their consent held protests to support the women's decision to sue the government, a legal aid group said Wednesday.
The Legal Assistance Center said protesters began staging sit-ins at two state hospitals in the southern African nation on Wednesday.
The three women allege they were sterilized without their consent, and that the sterilization violated their rights to have children and not to be discriminated against.
The women are seeking damages at a High Court hearing scheduled for Friday. Protest organizers said the sit-ins will continue until after the hearing, the first legal challenge of its kind in Namibia.
The government maintains the women gave their consent and says it will fight the damages claim.
One protest organizer, Vicky Noa, said the sit-in was about women's demand for fair medical treatment.
There should be "peace of mind that if you have HIV you can still go to the hospital and be treated with dignity and equality," she said. "If we were scared that we might be sterilized we will not use the hospital services as much. We do not want to be denied the right to motherhood."
Mark Nonkes, a spokesman from the legal support group, said about 40 people gathered at Katutura hospital in the capital early Wednesday, waving placards and handing out flyers.
At a second facility north of the capital of Windhoek, patients and their visitors were supporting the protest there.
UNAIDS estimates there are some 200,000 people living with HIV in Namibia, about one fifth of the population in one of the world's most sparsely populated nations.
Veronica Kalambi, an official from the Women's Health Network, said women's rights were often violated in state health institutions.
"HIV-positive women are holding the health system accountable for the wrongs done to them," she told The Associated Press.
Sterilization is a drastic tactic to treat HIV-positive women, as mother-to-child transmission of HIV/AIDS can be prevented with medication.