Hundreds of millions of women living lives ‘governed by others’, UN report shows

14 April 2021

Almost half of women in some 57 countries do not have the power to make choices over their healthcare, contraception, or sex lives, a new United Nations report launched on Wednesday, has revealed.

According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)’s State of World Population report, 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.

“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 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.

Alarming findings

Amongst its findings, 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. 

For instance, girls and boys with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be subjected to sexual violence, with girls at the greatest risk, the report said.

It also noted that punitive legal environments, combined with stigma, discrimination and high levels of violence, placed gay men and other men who have sex with men, at high risk of HIV infection because they are driven underground out of fear of prosecution or other negative consequences. 

As a result, they do not receive appropriate health education, and are reluctant to seek healthcare services, testing and treatment.

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.

The report also outlined 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.

‘Men must become allies’

The report highlighted that addressing the appalling situation “requires much more than a disconnected series of projects or services”, stressing that real, sustained progress largely depends on uprooting gender inequality and all forms of discrimination, and transforming the social and economic structures that maintain them.

“In this, men must become allies. Many more must commit to stepping away from patterns of privilege and dominance that profoundly undercut bodily autonomy, and move towards ways of living that are more fair and harmonious, benefiting us all”, Dr. Kanem said, urging everyone to challenge discrimination “wherever and whenever it is encountered.”

 

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