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Women Must Have Autonomy Over Their Bodies, UN Says

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in Istanbul, March 27, 2021 against Turkey's withdrawal from Istanbul Convention, an international accord designed to protect women from violence.

The U.N. Population Fund called on nations Wednesday to respect bodily autonomy as a universal right, saying too many women and girls are denied this basic power over their own bodies.

“The right to autonomy over our bodies means that we must have the power and agency to make choices without fear of violence or having someone else decide for us,” UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem told reporters.

Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, gives a press conference in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on March 22, 2021.
Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, gives a press conference in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on March 22, 2021.

Those other decision-makers include partners, family members, society and government.

In a new report, “My Body is My Own,” UNFPA reviewed data from nearly 60 countries, representing about a quarter of the world’s population. It found that nearly half of the women lack the power to make their own decisions about their health care, whether or not to use contraception, or to have sexual intercourse with a partner.

“A woman who has control over her body is more likely to have power in other spheres of her life,” Kanem said.

But when they are denied this power, she said it reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination, which is at the root of the problem.

“When control rests elsewhere, autonomy remains perpetually out of reach,” the report notes.

Crimes and practices that violate a woman’s bodily autonomy include “honor” killings, forced and early marriage, “virginity” tests and female genital mutilation. Forced pregnancy or abortion also violate a woman’s power to make decisions concerning her body.

“Some violations, such as rape, may be criminalized, but then not always prosecuted and punished,” Kanem said. “Other violations go unchallenged altogether because they are reinforced by community norms, practices and laws.”

Despite constitutional guarantees of gender equality in many countries, the report says on average, women globally enjoy only 75% of the legal rights of men.

Kanem said COVID-19 has worsened the situation for millions of women, increasing sexual violence, especially during lockdowns, creating new barriers to access to health care, and job and education losses.

The report notes that bodily autonomy is an issue for other often marginalized groups, including unmarried women, LGBTI communities and persons with disabilities.

No country has achieved total gender equality, but among those with the best track record are Sweden, Uruguay, Cambodia, Finland and Netherlands.

“A diversity that shows you that this aspirational value doesn’t really depend on culture or location,” Kanem said, noting that the same is true at the bottom of the scale.

She said governments have a lead role to play by fulfilling obligations under human rights treaties and altering social, political, institutional and economic structures that reinforce gender inequalities.