Nearly half of all women are denied their bodily autonomy, according to data from 57 countries, UNFPA’s flagship report announced on Wednesday.
The 2021 State of World Population report, titled ‘My Body is My Own’, has observed that the lack of bodily autonomy may have worsened during the coronavirus pandemic, placing record numbers of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence and harmful practices such as early marriage.
It marks the first time a United Nations report focuses on the power and agency of individuals to make choices about their bodies without fear, violence or coercion.
“The fact that nearly half of women still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or seek healthcare, should outrage us all”, Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director, said in a news release announcing the findings.
“In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others”, she added, noting that the denial of bodily autonomy is a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights. It also reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination.
“It is nothing less than an annihilation of the spirit, and it must stop”.
The report, prepared by the UN Population Fund, examines data on women’s decision-making power and on laws supportive of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Tragically, only 55 per cent of women have bodily autonomy, according to measurements of their ability to make their own decisions on issues relating to health care, contraception and whether to have sex.
The report also noted that a woman’s power to control her own body is linked to how much control she has in other spheres of her life, with higher autonomy associated with advances in health and education, income and safety.
Alarmingly, the report documented several ways through which bodily autonomy of not only women and girls, but also men and boys, is violated, with factors such as disability worsening the situation.
The report added that some 20 countries or territories have so-called “marry-your-rapist” laws, where a man can escape criminal prosecution if he marries the woman or girl he has raped, while 43 countries do not have legislation addressing the issue of marital rape.
According to the report, Dipika Paul, a longtime sexual and reproductive health researcher and an adviser at Ipas in Dhaka, Bangladesh, has seen the consequences of poor access to sexuality education in her own community.
“When I was a student, I was in class seven, and there was just one chapter,” she recalled. “The teacher also did not feel comfortable teaching that section to us.” Without comprehensive sexuality education, young people are vulnerable to myths and misinformation. Boys and men, in particular, “have knowledge gaps, they have misconceptions,” Paul was quoted to have said.