by Arielle Del Turco
December 17, 2021
Last week, an independent tribunal in the United Kingdom released a judgment that found the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghur people to be consistent with the legal definition of genocide. Multiple governments have made the same pronouncement, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, and Belgium. But these countries didn’t release their legal reasoning or factual evidence. The Uyghur Tribunal did—and it is Beijing’s abuses against Uyghur women specifically that resulted in the tribunal’s judgment.
Days of public hearings featured witness and expert testimonies, and a team of international human rights lawyers, professors, and NGO leaders combed through the evidence. The evidence uncovered was then measured against the legal definitions of crimes against humanity, torture, and genocide. The Chinese government was found guilty on all three counts.
The suppression of the Uyghur ethnic and religious minority is nearly all-encompassing. High-tech surveillance watches their every move. Passports are systematically confiscated. At least 1.8 million Uyghurs are held in internment camps, and both detained and “graduated” Uyghurs are used as a source of forced labor. No Uyghur person escapes the consequences of Beijing’s brutal crackdown in the Xinjiang region. Even children are sent to be raised in state-run boarding schools. Yet, notably, the weight of China’s genocide is targeted toward women.
The Uyghur Tribunal determined that China was “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” one of the methods of genocide outlined in the 1948 Genocide Convention. Earlier this year, the U.S. government came to the same conclusion.
Women bear the brunt of Beijing’s violent birth control policies in Xinjiang. One woman who worked at a hospital in Xinjiang in the late 1990s told the Uyghur Tribunal that approximately 100 women came for abortions every day, most sent by the government’s Family Planning Office and many in the late stages of pregnancy. She said that the aborted babies were disposed of in a garbage basket. Even after the end of China’s notorious one-child policy (and subsequent two-child policy), authorities in Xinjiang target Uyghur women for harsh sterilization and forced abortion policies.
Local authorities in Xinjiang are known to raid homes searching for children that surpass the government-approved limit. Gulnar Omirzakh, a Kazakh woman from Xinjiang, was required to have an intrauterine device (IUD) inserted after she had her third child. Then, in 2018, officials who showed up at her house in military attire required her to pay a $2,685 fine for having had a third child.
Uyghur and Kazakh women released from the internment camps say that they were given mysterious medication that stopped their menstrual cycles and impaired their minds. Gulbahar Haitiwaji, a woman who survived two years in a “re-education” camp, wrote in The Guardian that when a nurse required her to receive what she said was a vaccine, she was afraid they were poisoning her, but “In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.”
Another Uyghur woman who survived the camps told the Associated Press that officials inserted IUDs in every woman of childbearing age. At almost 50 years old, she pleaded for an exemption, but she was still rounded up with hundreds of other women who were herded onto buses and sent to receive IUDs at a hospital.
In a sick twist, the Chinese embassy to the United States tried to reframe forced sterilizations and abortions as “emancipat[ing]” Uyghur women so they are “no longer baby-making machines.” The women forced to undergo the trauma of abortion and sterilization likely don’t feel emancipated.
The effects of these policies are immense, and Chinese leaders have ambitious goals for this program. Researcher Adrian Zenz found that officials planned to subject at least 80 percent of women of childbearing age in some rural areas of Xinjiang to IUDs or sterilizations by 2019. The devices used can only be removed by state-approved doctors. It is due in part to this effort that the Uyghur Tribunal stated genocide is occurring in Xinjiang. The judgment read:
The tools of its policy include sterilisation by removal of wombs, widespread forced insertion of effectively removable IUDs equating to mandatory sterilisation and forced abortions. These policies will result in significantly fewer births in years to come than might otherwise have occurred… This will result in a partial destruction of the Uyghurs.
By targeting Uyghur women, the Chinese government is committing what is perhaps the most horrific crime known to mankind. Yet, the voices of prominent feminists are conspicuously silent on the situation in Xinjiang. Rushan Abbas, a Uyghur activist who advocates for her sister currently detained in Xinjiang and for all Uyghurs, asks why that is. She wrote in Bitter Winter, “Where are the Hollywood icons who proclaim themselves to be advocates for human rights? Where are the feminists?” These are important questions.
The Chinese government is exploiting the unique ability women have to become pregnant and bring new life into the world. It is doing this to destroy—at least in part—the Uyghur people. Beijing’s abuses against Uyghur women are one of the most significant human rights crises of our time, and we should be talking about that.