In 1995, in Peru, a new reproductive health and family planning programme was introduced by President Alberto Fujimori’s government. It was promoted as a means of providing good reproductive health-care, with access to birth control that included voluntary sterilisation.
At the time, the policy was welcomed, viewed by feminist groups and the international community as a positive step forward for women and a potentially radical approach to reducing poverty.
But in reality, sterilisation was often promoted aggressively in impoverished, rural and indigenous communities. Consent was often manipulated or in many cases not obtained. There are accounts of people being coerced, forced by medical staff or sterilised without their knowledge while in hospital for another procedure. By 2000, over 272,000 women and 22,000 men had undergone sterilisation.
Almost 20 years later, the legacy of this policy continues to affect lives. Many survivors still suffer emotional trauma or physical pain. Some are unable to work. Those that had not already had children now have no one to support them in their old age. Others have been abandoned by their partners and families.
Since 2000, organised groups of sterilised women and men have campaigned for the sterilisations to be acknowledged and compensated. The campaigners are hindered by several crucial factors. The majority of them live in remote regions with no internet access, many have not completed primary schooling and only speak the local language, Quechua, rather than the Spanish spoken by most legislators. But still, they are striving to make their voices heard by those in power.
In January 2014, the legal investigation into the case was dismissed, the prosecutor Marcus Guzman Baca stating he found no evidence of systematic sterilisation. Lawyers representing sterilised groups presented an appeal to prove that human rights violations did take place and in May 2015 a new prosecutor, Luis Landa Burgos, ruled that the complaint was founded and decided to extend the investigation of the case for 3 more months.
In November 2015, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala issued a Supreme Decree declaring “of national interest the priority attention of victims of forced sterilisation produced between 1995-2001 and make the appropriate register’. This is the first time that the Peruvian State has acknowledged that the rights of citizens were violated during the implementation of the National Health Programme. This is an important step towards justice but it is only a step, there is still a long way to go, since it does not yet ensure justice and reparation for those affected.
The Quipu Project was conceived as a reaction to the sterilisations and the human suffering that occurred as a result.
It would have been easy to simply make a documentary about it. Instead, we set ourselves the task of trying to achieve something more meaningful– something that could actively benefit the campaign for justice.
From the start, we developed the Quipu Project in partnership with the people in Peru who were sterilised. They are our collaborators in a project created with them, not for them. It is this collaborative approach that has resulted in the project’s unique structure.
Through an interplay between a low-tech telephone line and a high-tech digital interface, the Quipu Project enables communities that are politically, geographically and digitally marginalised to tell their stories around the world using the internet.
Contributors can also use the phone line to listen and respond to each other, providing an infrastructure of support that can operate across a dispersed community. Furthermore, by archiving the collaborators’ testimonies publicly online, we ensure that their oral accounts are not lost.
The Quipu Project is an experiment aiming to create a ‘living’ documentary – a story that continues to grow and evolve after its ‘release’ online. This approach allows the story to emerge organically and to continue telling itself, as the contributors and people around the world listen and respond to each other. The open-ended structure also reflects the fact that, for the collaborators, this remains a story without an ending until justice is achieved.
The aim of the Quipu Project is to shine a spotlight on the sterilisations by bringing the collaborators’ testimonies to a wider audience. We hope that this will become a useful tool in the campaign for recognition and reparation.
The Quipu Project is a free telephone line that contributors in Peru can use to record themselves speak about how they were sterilised. The phone line uses VOIP (voice over internet protocol) technology which connects it to the internet.
Once recorded, testimonies are moderated, then transcribed and translated into Quechua, Spanish and English. They are uploaded to an online archive, where they can be listened to anywhere in the world through an internet browser.
The phone line operates like a web forum: the collaborators can listen to each other’s testimonies and record a response, meaning they can offer each other support and solidarity, even though they live many miles apart.
In addition, the audience can record their reaction to the testimonies and upload them to the archive.
These messages are translated and recorded for the contributors through the phone line, letting them know that people have listened and are supporting them and engaging in dialogue. For many collaborators this will be the first time their stories will be acknowledged outside their own communities.
Quipus are ancient systems of threads and knots that are thought to have been used by the Incas and ancient Andean cultures to keep records in their predominantly oral culture . The cords were made from cotton, llama or alpaca hair and were used for everything from tax and census-keeping to storytelling, where the threads and knots were prompts for memory and language.
We have chosen the quipu to symbolise this project because we too are recording oral information, prompting our collective memory to ensure that the sterilisations are not forgotten. The structure of the quipu is also the inspiration for how we organise the information we are collecting: each testimony is a thread, each response a knot.
The Quipu you see in the picture is part of the Museum of Pre-Columbian Art in Santiago de Chile. This is composed of 586 threads organised in different sectors and levels of information. It is believed that it stores 15.024 pieces of data that could account for a census or Arica’s tributes to the Inca Empire. It was found in Arica, buried next to the Quipucamayoc (administrator of the Empire).
We completed the pilot version of the Quipu Project with the support of REACT-Hub Future Documentary Sandbox and presented it at the I-Docs Conference in Bristol in March 2014.
This involved a prototype version of the digital interface and a short video, filmed in the village of Huancabamba, in the Peruvian Andes.
We wanted to film the pilot in Huancabamba because we had heard about the grassroots activists that were based there. When we arrived, we were delighted to find that over forty women had turned out to meet us. Some had travelled for hours by bus over difficult mountain roads to be there. They told us that the Quipu Project was an important opportunity for them to rehearse their testimonies, in readiness for the day when they could finally speak out in court.
Since the REACT Future Documentary Showcase, we have presented the Quipu Project pilot at DocsBarcelona and InterDocs Barcelona, Sheffield Doc/Fest, Crossover Market and Summit, Cross Video Days, and The Sunny Side of the Doc, as well as the Institute of Latin American Studies, the British Academy, the University of Bristol, Mozilla Festival, the Peru Support Group Annual Conference London and Good Pitch Argentina.
In 2014 the Quipu Project was awarded the Tribeca New Media Fund and the CrossCurrents Doc Fund (Hot Docs), this allowed the project to move forward with its production after the development of the prototype. That year we also started working with Mike Robbins and Helios Design Labs for the UX design and front end development.
We made a production trip to Independencia, Ayacucho, Peru, in October 2014. Throughout November and December 2014 we ran a crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to develop the technology infrastructure and expand the project into new regions. Thanks to our crowdfunding supporters we managed to made an additional production trip to Anta, Cusco in July 2015 to work in collaboration with other local women’s organisations.
The project will be premiered at IDFA Doclab 2015 as part of the Digital Storytelling Competition. It will be officially launched in Lima, Peru on the 10th of December – International Human Rights Day – through a public event co-hosted with some of the women and organisations that have collaborated with the project. We will also launch an Outreach Campaign that will run until April 2017. The outreach plan consist of press and social media campaigns, a radio campaign, local workshops and a short documentary film in coproduction with English newspaper, The Guardian, that will be released late 2016..