“My body is my own” : Why the right to bodily autonomy is crucial for individuals, communities and entire nations
When Rachana Sunar was barely 15 in remote western Nepal, and about to avail of a scholarship to pursue further studies, her father wanted to forcibly marry her off to a man she didn’t even know. Rachana barely managed to escape that fate.
In the rocky highlands of Timor-Leste, 18-year-old Natalia was shocked to find herself pregnant by her boyfriend. Her school had never provided any sexuality education and she didn’t know much about how babies are made – the topic is taboo in her conservative community.
Helwana was about seven years of age in Indonesia when her mother organized a ‘cutting’ ritual for her. The paradji or traditional birth attendant used a piece of sharpened bamboo to her private parts, causing severe bleeding, pain and life-long trauma.
The stories of these girls and women are unfortunately not exceptions. All around Asia-Pacific and globally, millions of women and girls simply have no control over their bodies and their lives. All of us have a fundamental right to make our own decisions about our bodies. But how many women can actually claim they have the power to exercise that right?
Our new UNFPA State of World Population report, My Body is My Own, shows that, in the eight Asia-Pacific countries where data on these three issues are available, barely 59 per cent of women are fully empowered in this regard.
The right to bodily autonomy means that we must have the power and agency to make choices, without fear of violence or coercion, or having someone else decide for us. But often these decisions are made or influenced by others – partners, families, societies, governments.
Across diverse sociocultural contexts, women’s husbands and their families control most if not all aspects of their lives – from the number of children a woman is expected to have including demands that she bear sons, to whether or not she’s allowed to work or even step out of the house unaccompanied by a chaperone. In many countries, national and local laws govern a woman’s access to family planning and other health care, as well as her ability to avail of gender-based violence prevention and response services.
Intertwined with bodily autonomy is the right to bodily integrity, where people live free from physical acts to which they do not consent.
We see violations of both when a lack of contraceptive choices leads to unplanned pregnancy. Or in the terrible bargain made to exchange unwanted sex for a home and food. In life-derailing practices such as child marriage, so common in South Asia and elsewhere; or in gender-biased sex selection fueled by son preference – all of these witnessed to varying degrees in Asia-Pacific.
Autonomy is denied when people with diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are criminalized as they are in much of Asia-Pacific. Or when people with disabilities are stripped of their rights to self-determination, to live free from violence, to enjoy safe and satisfying sexual lives, and exercise the right to start their own families.
Some violations such as rape may be criminalized but not always prosecuted. Other violations go unchallenged because they are reinforced by patriarchal and chauvinistic community norms, practices and laws. Bodily autonomy is also shattered by practices like so-called ‘corrective rape’, ‘honour killings’ and ‘virginity tests’, all seen in several countries and contexts in our region. This list goes on and on.
What was bad has now become worse amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with women’s autonomy further diminished by increasing gender-based violence, new barriers to healthcare, unplanned pregnancies, and job and education losses.
At this very moment, as we attempt to build back better from a global crisis, we must commit to addressing the impediments to bodily autonomy all the more. And while there are many impediments to bodily autonomy, gender inequality is perhaps the most pervasive. Gender-unequal norms and attitudes lead to power imbalances in relationships that restrict women’s decisions – or drive the expectation that women must defer to their husbands or partners in all aspects of their lives.
Real, sustained progress demands action at the grassroots level – uprooting gender inequality and all forms of discrimination, transforming the social and economic structures that maintain them. In this, men must become allies. Many more men should commit to stepping away from patterns of privilege and dominance that profoundly undercut bodily autonomy.
But we must look beyond obligations. We must identify opportunities.
Let’s build and strengthen alliances that bring together governments, civil society and supportive partners including the UN family – to truly forge a coalition of the willing, all the more crucial at this moment in time.
In Nepal, Rachana Sunar is now a globally-renowned activist fighting child marriage and educating her community about women’s rights, allowing young girls and women to better achieve their full potential. She’s also married to a man of her choice, and the proud mother of an eight-month-old baby boy.
In Timor-Leste, Natalia has been raising her daughter Afeena with community support. The government has begun implementing sexuality education through the school curricula to better educate young persons about their bodies, rights and choices.
And in Indonesia, Helwana is a religious leader affiliated with the Indonesian Mosque Council, advocating against female genital mutilation and other harmful practices against women and girls.
Ultimately, a woman who has control over her body is more likely to be empowered in other spheres of her life, through advances in health and education, income and safety. As these benefits accrue, entire communities, societies and countries will flourish when all people are empowered to make their own informed decisions about their bodies and futures.
Realizing autonomy helps realize a world of greater justice and human well-being, a world that’s truly gender-equal, a world that benefits us all.