• World
  • Apr 17

Nearly half of all women are denied their bodily autonomy, says UNFPA report

Nearly half of women in 57 developing countries are denied their bodily autonomy — the right to decide whether to have sex with their partners, use contraception or seek health care — according to UNFPA’s 2021 flagship State of World Population report titled ‘My Body is My Own’.

What is the purpose of UNFPA?

• UNFPA is formally named the United Nations Population Fund. The organisation was created in 1969, the same year the United Nations General Assembly declared “parents have the exclusive right to determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.”

• Guided by the 1994 Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), UNFPA partners with governments, civil society and other agencies to advance its mission.

• UNFPA works in more than 150 countries and territories.

• It receives overall policy guidance from the UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

• UNFPA is the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency. Its mission is to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

• UNFPA calls for the realisation of reproductive rights for all and supports access to a wide range of sexual and reproductive health services – including voluntary family planning, maternal health care and comprehensive sexuality education.

• The State of World Population report is UNFPA’s annual flagship publication. Published yearly since 1978, it shines a light on emerging issues in the field of sexual and reproductive health and rights, bringing them into the mainstream and exploring the challenges and opportunities they present for international development.

What is bodily autonomy?

For the first time, a United Nations report focuses on bodily autonomy: the power and agency to make choices about your body, without fear of violence or having someone else decide for you. 

It includes when, whether or with whom you want to become pregnant. It means the freedom to go to a doctor whenever you need one.

“The denial of bodily autonomy is a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights that reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination,” said Dr. Natalia Kanem, the fund’s executive director.

The lack of bodily autonomy has massive implications beyond the profound harms to individual women and girls: potentially depressing economic productivity, undercutting skills, and resulting in extra costs to health care and judicial systems.

In this report, UNFPA is measuring both women’s power to make their own decisions about their bodies and the extent to which countries’ laws support or interfere with a woman’s right to make these decisions. The data show a strong link between decision-making power and higher levels of education.

What are the highlights of the report?

• Only 55 per cent of women are fully empowered to make choices over health care, contraception and the ability to say yes or no to sex.

• Only 71 per cent of countries guarantee access to overall maternity care.

• Only 75 per cent of countries legally ensure full, equal access to contraception.

• Only about 80 per cent of countries have laws supporting sexual health and well-being.

• Only about 56 per cent of countries have laws and policies supporting comprehensive sexuality education.

The report also documents many other ways that the bodily autonomy of women, men, girls and boys is violated, revealing that:

• As many as 20 countries or territories have “marry-your-rapist” laws, where a man can escape criminal prosecution if he marries the woman or girl he has raped.

• As many as 43 countries have no legislation addressing the issue of marital rape (rape by a spouse).

• More than 30 countries restrict women’s right to move around outside the home.

• Girls and boys with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, with girls at the greatest risk.

Forced and child marriage

The most obvious marital practices that deny a woman agency are marriages where she cannot make a free and informed choice about her own partner: forced and child marriage. Forced marriage is any marriage in which one or both of the partners enter into it “without full, free and informed consent”. 

Forced marriages are driven by institutionalized patriarchal practices, including payment of dowry or bride price, bride kidnapping, marriage of widows to in-laws, or “widow inheritance”, and marriage of rape survivors to their assaulters.

Child marriage, a subset of forced marriage, is any marriage where at least one of the parties is under the age of 18 and has therefore not reached the age when she or he can express full, free and informed consent. 

Child marriage is a form of gender-based violence. It is also a powerful constraint on the agency of women and girls, forcing them into lifelong subordinate relationships before they achieve the legal capacity to make decisions that affect their entire lives. 

The most recent estimates indicate that there are 650 million women alive today who were married before the age of 18, and every year another 12 million girls are married before they become adults. 

Even though most of the world’s countries have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, many countries still allow marriage under the age of 18, sometimes with the consent of a parent, guardian, judge or other governmental official.

Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.

It entered into force on September 2, 1990. 

The Convention deals with the child-specific needs and rights.

There are specific protection rights in the Convention which include protection from all forms of child abuse, neglect, exploitation and cruelty.

Articles 34 and 35 of the Convention say governments should protect children from all forms of sexual exploitation and abuse and take all possible measures to ensure children are not abducted, sold or trafficked. 

The provisions in the Convention are augmented by the Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.

Scenario in India

• In India, according to NFHS-4 (2015-2016), only about 12 per cent of currently married women (15-49 years of age) independently make decisions about their own health care, while 63 per cent decide in consultation with their spouse.

• For a quarter of women (23 per cent), it is the spouse that mainly takes decisions about health care.

• Regarding the power to decide about use of contraception, only 8 per cent of currently married women (15-49 years) do it independently, while 83 per cent decide jointly with their spouse. 

• For nearly 1 in 10 women, it is the husband who largely takes decisions about the use of contraception.

• Information provided to women about contraception is limited. Only 47 per cent women using a contraceptive were informed about the side effects of the method, and 54 per cent women were provided information about other contraceptives.

Some suggested solutions 

• The report shows how efforts to address abuses can lead to further violations of bodily autonomy. 

• For example, to prosecute a case of rape, a criminal justice system might require a survivor to undergo an invasive so-called virginity test. 

• Real solutions, the report finds, must take into account the needs and experiences of those affected. 

• In Mongolia, for example, persons with disabilities organised to give direct input to the government about their sexual and reproductive health needs. 

• In Angola, young people educated about their bodies, health and rights have been able to seek health care, use family planning, decline sex and petition for justice after sexual violence.

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