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My body, My choice: 5 means to uphold the right of bodily autonomy 

Bodily Autonomy is central to UNFPA mandate where all women and girls can lead healthy, productive and dignified lives free of all forms of discrimination, stigma and violence. Women and girls everywhere should have the right to govern over their bodies and future and take sole decisions about their bodies. This includes when and whether to become pregnant. It means the freedom to go to a doctor whenever needed and the liberty to take up space in the world without any coercion or influence.

That right is far from a reality for hundreds of millions of women who lack control over their own bodies. A review of data from 57 countries shows that only one in two women are empowered to decide whether and when to seek health care, including sexual and reproductive health services, use contraception, and when to have sex with her partner.

In recognition of the prevalent denial of right to governance over one’s own body without the threat of coercion or outside influence, below are the main reasons why bodily autonomy is a key to achieve gender equality;

Bodily autonomy is a human right

Bodily autonomy is a foundation upon which all other human rights are built. Yet women and girls—and indeed, all people—face constraints on their bodily autonomy. Women and girls’ human rights include the rights to dignity, equality,  access  information, bodily autonomy and integrity, respect for their private lives and the highest standards of health, including reproductive and sexual health without any kind of discrimination as well as the freedom from any inhuman, torture and cruel treatment.

The world should empower them to make autonomous decisions about their own bodies and reproductive functions, which is at the very core fundamental right to equality and privacy, concerning intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity.

“The concept of sexual and physical exploitation is a deep and sensitive concept that affects the dignity of human beings. All the divine laws and all countries recognize the right to physical integrity and maintain it from all forms of exploitation or harm,” Dr Mona Farhoud; a gynecologist from the Health Counselling Center - Syrian Family Planning Association told UNFPA, ”everyone agrees on this, but what is bodily autonomy and do people realize this concept in order to be able to defend it correctly?” 

Harmful practices undermine women and girls’ rights and freedom

Everyone has the right to marry by choice and only when is mature enough to grant full, free and informed consent.. Child marriage and forced marriage are among many other violations that persist and are perpetuated by norms, practices and even laws, and that aredriven by deeply rooted gender inequalities.  Such as honour killing, marital rape, female genital mutilation, reproductive coercion, and virginity testing.

Virginity testing violates individuals’ human rights and dignity, the United Nations has resoundingly asserted. When performed without consent, it constitutes torture and a form of sexual violence. It is also scientifically useless,and a violation of medical ethics . Yet it persists in every region of the world;

“Virginity tests are a common practice in the medical environment – family doctors, gynaecologists and paediatricians. The techniques used are not scientifically validated, and generally consist of an inspection of the hymen and vulva, and of a test nicknamed “the two-finger test” – which has no scientific or medical basis whatsoever,” Dr. Ahmed Ben Nasr an outspoken advocate of ending virginity testing and forced anal testing in Tunisia. 

Female genital mutilation is a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights and an extreme form of discrimination and violence directed exclusively at girls and women. It is also a part of wider patriarchal practices, rooted in gender inequality and aimed at controlling women’s and girls’ sexuality, their bodies and their sexual and reproductive rights. 

@UNFPA/Rebecca Zerzan

The practice denies women and girls their rights to: physical and mental integrity; freedom from violence; the highest attainable standard of health; freedom from gender discrimination; and freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, among others. Yet, more than 200 million girls and women live with the consequences of female genital mutilation, and at least 4 million girls are at risk of undergoing the practice each year .

How to uphold the right to bodily autonomy

We can and must realize bodily autonomy for all. The first step is articulating and affirming the concept itself. Too many people are unaware that they even have the right to make choices over their own bodies and futures.

Education is key. Women with more education are more likely to make their own decisions about contraception and health care, and to be able to say no to sex. Comprehensive sexuality education—meaning age-appropriate, accurate information about one’s sexual and reproductive health and rights—is crucial, as well because it helps prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections and equips individuals to advocate for themselves. It also teaches respect, consent and equality, which are key to realizing bodily autonomy.

“Women and girls are usually afraid to speak up about their problems, they are afraid of society to the extent that they could be raped more than once and they still refuse to speak” Nabileh Hussen a midwife from Syria

Social norms must become more gender equitable. Improving women’s opportunities for livelihoods and leadership roles in their community and beyond can increase their power to make decisions within households and about their bodies. And progress fundamentally depends on men being willing to step away from dominating roles that privilege their power and choices at the expense of women’s power and choices.

Health providers have a critical role to play in upholding and affirming the bodily autonomy of those seeking information and care. Patients must be aware of their rights, and they must be asked for informed consent. Medical guidelines, training on legal requirements, and specific c gender-sensitivity training can help health-care providers actively support the bodily autonomy of patients.

Laws can have a significant impact on women’s rights, gender equality and sexual and reproductive health. They must be aligned with globally agreed human rights principles and commitments, and reviewed for gender responsiveness and non-discrimination. The judiciary and police must also be aware of these laws and principles. Laws need to be grounded in sound policies and require investment to make them become a reality

Track progress through reliable and complete data, broken down by location, income level, sex, age, ethnicity, ability and other variables to identify which groups and communities are at risk of being excluded and need additional support. Meaningful and sustainable change depends on inclusiveness. No one must be left behind.