Ethiopian women claim Israel forced them to use birth control before letting them immigrate

Immigration Ministry and Joint Distribution Committee reject allegations as ‘nonsense’

Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel with Operation Dove's Wings in October 2012. (Courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel)
Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel with Operation Dove's Wings in October 2012. (Courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel)

Ethiopian women who moved to Israel eight years ago claimed Israeli officials coerced them to receive injections of Depo-Provera, a long-acting birth control drug, as a prerequisite to immigration.

Speaking to reporters on an episode of Israel Educational Television’s investigative show “Vacuum” that aired on Saturday, several immigrants described the intense pressure placed on them to keep their families small. The women claimed Israeli representatives from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Health Ministry told them that raising large families is especially difficult, that it is for hard people with many children to find work and support their families, and that many landlords would not be willing to rent apartments to large families.

Gal Gabbai, the show’s anchor, reported that in the past decade, approximately 50,000 Ethiopian Jews have immigrated to Israel. During that period, the birth rate among this community, which has traditionally favored very large families, has plummeted by nearly 50 percent.

Several women interviewed by Gabbai said that they were told at the transit camps in Ethiopia that they had to receive the shots if they wanted to immigrate to Israel and continue receiving medical treatment from the JDC. Furthermore, many of the women claimed they were never told that the shots were to prevent pregnancy. Rather, they were under the impression that the shots were vaccinations.

Some women reportedly refused to tell their husbands about the shots, fearing the men would be furious.

The report said many women continued to receive Depo-Provera after arriving in Israel, despite suffering such side effects as severe headaches and abdominal pains.

One woman who suffered from osteoporosis said she has been receiving shots for four years without ever being warned that Depo-Provera was dangerous to women in her condition.

A hidden camera in a local health clinic recorded a Ethiopian woman being told by a nurse that this shot is given “primarily to Ethiopian women because they forget, they don’t understand, and it’s hard to explain to them, so it’s best that they receive a shot once every three months… basically they don’t understand anything.”

Israeli authorities denied all of the allegations. However, Gabbai revealed an official letter that she uncovered from the Health Ministry to Dr. Rick Hodes, the director of the JDC Medical Programs in Ethiopia. The letter praised the doctor’s work, noting that whereas fewer than 5% of Ethiopians use any form of birth control, Hodes achieved a rate of 30% among the patients he treated.

Rachel Mangoli, director of the WIZO branch in Pardes Hanna, said that in 2006 she established a program for Ethiopian children at her absorption center. A “warning light” lit up for her when she realized that no Ethiopian babies were born that entire year at her center.

Mangoli said she was told by the director of the local health clinic that the women at her center had all been given contraceptive shots as they could not be relied upon to take birth control pills every day.

David Yaso, director of the Immigration Ministry’s Ethiopian Department, flatly denied that women were told that in Israel they were forbidden to have large families and coerced to take contraceptive shots against their will.

Professor Daniel Seidman, chairman of the Israel Society for Contraception and Sexual Health, told Gabbai that he does not believe the Ethiopian immigrants have been “singled out” by Israeli authorities in a concerted effort to lower their birth rate. Rather, he offered two possible explanations for the significant drop in Ethiopian birth rate: either the women are better educated now and they are looking to have careers, not children, or they recognize that with limited finances, they cannot afford to support large families.

Haaretz reported that in response to the program, the JDC referred to the women’s claims as “nonsense.” The JDC statement said that “the medical team does not intervene directly or indirectly in economic aid and the Joint is not involved in the aliyah procedures.”

The statement added that Depo-Provera is used because their studies show that it “is the most popular form of birth control among women in Ethiopia.”

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