"I didn't know what bodily autonomy is," says Olga from Angola. "Even as the woman doesn't have the sexual desire at the time, she is obliged to do it because her partner wants to."
Olga's is one of the many testimonials collected by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) this year as part of it's The State of World Population Report (SOWP) 2021.
The report titled 'My Body Is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-Determination' sheds light on the pattern of bodily autonomy exercised by women—and others, around the world.
What is bodily autonomy? Why does it matter? Can we hope to realise autonomy for all? Here's what it says.
What Is Bodily Autonomy?
Simply put, it is the power to make decisions for yourself and your body without violence or coercion by someone else.
This includes every aspect of your life from your sexual choices, reproductive choices, and the freedom to seek medical help whenever you need it.
And it is with bodily autonomy that comes bodily integrity and dignity.
And while many women and girls in the world today have the power to make autonomous decisions about their own bodies, many more still face constraints, some with devastating consequences of their health, well-being, and potential in life.
How Free Are You?
When it comes to sexual and reproductive freedom, the SOWP lays down three questions that a person should ask themselves to know how much autonomy they exercise.
- Who usually makes decisions about health care for yourself?
- Who usually makes the decision on whether or not you should use contraception?
- Can you say no to your husband or partner if you do not want to have sexual intercourse?
“Only women who make their own decisions in all three of these areas are considered to have autonomy in reproductive health decision-making and to be empowered to exercise their reproductive rights.”The State of World Population Report 2021, UNFPA
But, sadly, the data collected by the report found that the answer to these questions was not 'me', as often as it should be.
The Different Faces of Coercion
There are different factors that contribute to a person being deprived of agency over their own bodies, and when it comes to women, they largely stem from the gender inequality imbued in their societies.
“For many women and girls, deprivation of bodily autonomy is embedded in the social norms and law making it difficult or impossible for them to make their own informed decisions about sex, health and reproductionMatavel Piccin, UNFPA Representative India and Country Director Bhutan
The report also points to how, for some women and girls, "the impact of gender inequality is amplified by multiple sources of discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or even geography."
It goes on to list the different ways in which this coercive control is exercised.
- Rape and Marital Rape
- Denial of comprehensive Sexuality education
- Forced Sterilization
- Honour Killing
- Enabling laws
- Forced virginity testing
- Genital mutilation
- Homophobic and transphobic violence
- Reproductive coercion
“Despite constitutional guarantees of gender equality in many countries, worldwide, on average, women enjoy just 75 per cent of the legal rights of men (United Nations Secretary-General, 2020).”The State of World Population Report 2021, UNFPA
Where India Stands
Most of the above-mentioned paths of coercions are issues that have had seized our society for long.
In India, according to NFHS-4 (2015-2016), only about 12% of currently married women (15-49 years of age) independently make decisions about their own healthcare, while 63% decide in consultation with their spouse.
Data collected by the UNFPA also found that for a quarter of women (23%) in India, it is the spouse that mainly takes decisions about healthcare.
Only 47% women using a contraceptive were informed about the side effects of the method, and 54% women were provided information about other contraceptives
Apart from healthcare, they also found a huge gap in the autonomy exercised by Indian women in other aspects of their lives.
In the household, decisions of major household purchases and that of visiting relatives were taken mainly by the husband for 1 in every 5 women in the country
Female sterilization remains the most commonly used contraceptive method in the country, contributing to 76% of the method mix.
The Right to Say 'No'
Data collected in the National Family Health Survey 4 (NFHS) says that 68% of women in India agree that the wife is justified in refusing sex with her husband in specific circumstances.
85% of women believe that wife beating is not justified if she refuses to have sex with her husband
To What Extent Do the Laws in India Help?
The UNFPA tracked the supportive laws and legal barriers to personal autonomy in India and found that,
In India termination of pregnancy for prescribed gestation can be availed under defined circumstances irrespective of their marital status, made more conducive by the MTP Act. If the woman is 18 years or above, only her consent is required for termination of pregnancy.
And that India legally offers a 100% Guarantee of contraceptive services, consent, and emergency contraceptives.
The report also says that although the policy environment in India is conducive, its on-ground implementation is not uniform across the country.
'My Body, Why Not My Choice?'
This is the question that the UNFPA aims to get women—and others—to ask, with this report.
A question that one will only ask if they are aware that they even have the right to make choices over their own bodies and futures.
So it all begins with articulating and affirming the concept itself.
This includes making women believe that they own their bodies, and that they have the right to say ‘no’.
It also speaks of the importance of young women knowing how their bodies work, especially educating them in sexual and reproductive health—which are often considered taboo.
Health providers, too, have a critical role to play in upholding and affirming the bodily autonomy of those seeking information and care.
And so do laws and the enforcers of law.
Not only do they need to be aligned with globally agreed human rights principles and commitments, but also constantly reviewed for gender responsiveness and non-discrimination.
Those who enforce the law, including the police and the judges must also be aware of these and adhere to them.
And lastly, societal norms—wherein lies the root of the issue itself needs to be altered. Improving women’s opportunities for livelihoods can be a great start to increasing their power to make decisions within their households, especially when it comes to their bodies.
“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.”The State of World Population Report 2021, UNFPA