Israeli officials order halt to underhanded contraception of Ethiopian women


Following a TV report alleging that Ethiopian Israeli women were being given contraceptive shots against their will, Israel’s Health Ministry has ordered physicians to put a stop to the practice.

The report, broadcast Dec. 8 on the “Vacuum” investigative news program on Israeli Educational Television, alleged that Ethiopian immigrants were coerced or coaxed into receiving Depo Provera, a long-term contraceptive shot that lasts three months, both by Jewish aid officials before their immigration to Israel and by health workers once in Israel.

In the past decade, births among Ethiopian women in Israel have fallen by nearly 50 percent, according to the report.

Last week, the Health Ministry instructed doctors to stop administering the shots unless women ask for them and understand their ramifications.

The ministry’s directive, sent by Director General Ron Gamzu on Jan. 20 in response to a petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, instructs doctors “not to renew prescriptions of Depo Provera to women of Ethiopian origin or any other women who, for whatever reason, may not understand the treatment’s implications.”

The directive also instructs doctors to ask patients why they want to take the shot before administering it, and to use a translator if necessary. The directive does not confirm the allegations or acknowledge any wrongdoing.

“We didn’t give the shots,” ministry spokeswoman Einav Shimron Greenbaum told JTA. “We didn’t give them to anyone. We still deny it today.”

The allegations extend as far back as the health clinics the women visited in Ethiopia prior to immigrating to Israel, where the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provides an array of health services to prospective Ethiopians immigrants, including contraception.

“They said, ‘Come, there are vaccinations, gather everyone,” Amawaish Alane, an Ethiopian immigrant to Israel, told “Vacuum” reporter Gal Gabbay in the Dec. 8 broadcast. “We said we wouldn’t receive it. They said, ‘You won’t move to Israel.’ ”

Alana and others on the program charged that workers at the JDC clinic told them it would be hard for them to work, get apartments or survive in Israel with large families.

A woman identified as S. said on the program that she was told at the Jewish aid compound in Gondar, Ethiopia, that she wouldn't get a ticket to Israel if she didn't take the shot.

“I didn’t want to take it. They wanted me to take it. But I didn’t know it was a contraceptive,” she said. “I thought it was an immunization.”

JDC denies the charges.

“At no time did JDC coerce anyone into engaging at family planning at its clinics. Those options were totally voluntary and offered to women who requested it,” a JDC spokesman in New York told JTA in December. “They chose the form of contraceptive based on being fully informed of all the options available to them.”

The “Vacuum” report alleged that the women continued to be coaxed into receiving the shots once they immigrated to Israel, often without their knowledge that what they were getting was contraception.

A spokesman for ACRI, which filed its petition after the Dec. 8 report aired, said ACRI is interested in preventing future unwanted contraceptive shots rather than casting blame.

“Admission of guilt is not what we’re about,” ACRI spokesman Marc Grey told JTA. “It’s more about acknowledging that this occurred and making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The project coordinator for women and medical technologies at Isha L’Isha, an Israeli feminist group that also signed the petition, praised the Health Ministry’s Gamzu for issuing the new directive.

“What he’s done is different from all the other statements from the Health Ministry, which blamed the women and said that’s what they want,” said Hedva Eyal, the project coordinator. “He said maybe we made a mistake. We need to make sure this never happens to any group with any health issue.”

Ariela’s legacy gives others direction, purpose


Aviva Dese believes that without the Ariela Foundation, she’d probably be back in Nazareth Ilit, the factory town in the Galilee where she grew up, maybe with a low-paying assembly-line job, or maybe still wondering, like so many of her friends, what to do with her life. 

Instead, the 24 year-old Ethiopian Israeli studies at one of the top music schools in Israel, is talking to producers about an album and was the featured singer at a national memorial for Ethiopians who died en route to Israel.

The Israel-based Ariela Foundation, which pays for scholarships, equipment and a mentor for Dese, provides individualized, long-term support for around 60 Israelis of Ethiopian descent who show talent and promise in specific areas or who are highly motivated and above average in school.

“I really love the goals of the foundation because it’s much more than about getting a job or just holding on. The purpose is to bring us to places where we haven’t been yet. You don’t see a lot of Ethiopian people in the government, in music, as doctors … so it’s really important to have Ethiopian people in better places so the young can see that there is no limit to what they can do,” Dese said. 

[Related: As part of their visit to the United States this summer, Ariela Foundation participants Aviva Dese and Nofar Mekonen visited Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., where campers participated in a lively discussion about the life of Israelis of Ethiopian origin.

The Ariela Foundation has around 60 young people in two programs, with a budget of around $300,000. 

The Star program provides groups of students with academic enrichment, social experiences and cultural opportunities. The foundation sticks with the same cohort from middle school and high school through the army and university, giving the students a sustained chance for success. A key part of the program is a mentor linked to their areas of interest. Four classes are currently running in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Gedera and Ness Ziona, with a total of more than 30 students combined.

The Maof program — maof is Hebrew for “soaring” — of which Dese and Mekonen are members, offers mentoring and custom-tailored support also to around 30 young people who excel in academics, athletics or the arts. Fellows are asked to commit fully to achieving their personal goals and to give back to the community.

“I think from all the sectors in Israel, the one that has received the most money with the least results is Ethiopian Jewry,” Eric Goldberg said, pointing to high unemployment, dropout and poverty rates among Ethiopian Jews. Most programs, he said, are short-term and welfare-oriented. “That is not to say these are not important, but at the end of the day they don’t get to the root of the problem. … So we said, let’s take the strongest people in the Ethiopian Jewish community and give them all the tools they in need on a long-term basis, so that they can become role models for their community.” 

Story continues after the jump.