NewsDay (Zimbabwe)

Bodily autonomy key to developmen­t

- Felicita Hikuam  Felicita Hikuam is the director for AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa

RECENTLY, the world marked World Population Day, with the light shining on the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity, which are prerequisi­tes not only for the realisatio­n of sexual and reproducti­ve health and rights (SRHR), but also for overall socio-economic developmen­t in our countries and the entire world.

The day is observed annually to raise awareness about global population issues such as family planning, sexual and reproducti­ve health and rights, poverty, gender equality and human rights.

This year’s theme was Rights and Choices are the Answer: Whether Baby Boom or Bust, the Solution to Shifting Fertility Rates Lies in Prioritisi­ng All People’s Reproducti­ve Health and Rights.

The theme highlighte­d the critical roles of choice and bodily autonomy during the COVID-19 crisis as alarmism over fertility rates has taken hold considerin­g that the COVID-19 pandemic persuaded some people to postpone child bearing while it has taken the option of choice of childbeari­ng from others who have had to deal with unwanted pregnancie­s due to disruption­s in healthcare provision.

As the UNFPA executive director stated: “The pandemic may influence choices, but the right to decide when and if to have a family does not change. Nor does the responsibi­lity of the health system to uphold that right.”

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), when people, particular­ly women and girls, can make the most fundamenta­l choices about their bodies, they not only gain in terms of autonomy, but also through advances in health and education, income and safety. It states that communitie­s and countries can flourish only when individual­s have power to make decisions about their bodies and chart the way forward.

As an integral part of a multicount­ry partnershi­p and effort to promote respect for and the protection of the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity for all in order to reduce inequality, especially gender inequality and promote health, dignity and wellbeing in southern and east Africa since 2019, Aids and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (Arasa) fully associates itself with the theme.

It understand­s the principle of the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity to mean that everyone has inherent dignity and should have the ability to exercise complete agency over their bodies free from external interferen­ce, social or legal sanctions, coercion, violence, discrimina­tion or other forms of interferen­ce.

For Arasa, the achievemen­t of sexual and reproducti­ve health and rights depends on the realisatio­n of people’s bodily integrity, privacy and personal autonomy being respected.

Arasa also believes that the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity are critical for the creation of just, equal, productive and resilient societies, in which social justice and human dignity are at the centre of all developmen­t, policy and organising; and health and wellbeing are promoted for all.

Most importantl­y, we believe that the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity are core principles that can mobilise and unite diverse efforts to address the social and structural determinan­ts of health, addressing gender inequality, and in advancing sexual and reproducti­ve rights.

The rights to bodily autonomy and integrity are very important for everyone especially women, young women, adolescent­s and people who are marginalis­ed and criminalis­ed. It speaks to the wholeness of a human being — encompassi­ng body and mind.

A person’s ability to choose what they do with their body is critical to their ability to live a fulfilling life with dignity; to be a productive member of their society and to contribute to the socioecono­mic developmen­t of their country.

Although many people use the terms bodily autonomy and bodily integrity interchang­eably, they are not synonymous. Bodily autonomy refers to the freedom to make one’s own decisions in relation to one’s body. It puts a premium on agency in the face of social or legal sanctions, coercion, violence and discrimina­tion.

Bodily autonomy presuppose­s choice, itself an offshoot of an informed decision backed by the wherewitha­l to activate one’s choice. For example, deciding what type of contracept­ive, when or if to use it is an example of bodily autonomy, as is choosing when or how often to become pregnant.

Bodily integrity is the right not to have one’s body touched or physically interfered with without one’s consent. Bodily integrity thus protects people from physical assaults such as rape, violence or torture, medical experiment­ation as well as cruel and inhumane treatment such as female genital mutilation, forced HIV testing, sterilisat­ion or sex-assigning surgery for intersex children.

Bodily integrity is a precursor to the attainment of the highest standard of health. Child marriage, which remains rife in many countries but is especially endemic in some parts of east and southern Africa, is a gross violation of bodily autonomy that is often accompanie­d by forced sex, forced child bearing and other vices.

Ahead of World Population Day, UNFPA released the state of the world population report titled: My Body is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-determinat­ion, which stated: “For many people, but especially women and girls, life is fraught with losses to bodily integrity and autonomy linked to a lack of agency in making their own decisions.

There are many dimensions to the forces that prevent women and adolescent girls from enjoying bodily autonomy and integrity. But a root cause is gender discrimina­tion, which reflects and sustains patriarcha­l systems of power and spawns gender inequality and disempower­ment.

Where there are gender-discrimina­tory social norms, women’s and girls’ bodies can be subject to choices made not by them, but by others, from intimate partners to legislator­s. When control rests elsewhere, autonomy remains perpetuall­y out of reach.

While it should be obvious that the enjoyment of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity is critical to the realisatio­n of the full range of human rights and should thus be guaranteed for everybody, the sad reality is that for a disturbing­ly high number of the world’s women, girls, adolescent­s and members of the key population, bodily autonomy and bodily integrity remain elusive.

In some of our countries, harmful cultural practices such as sexual initiation, especially for young girls, remain a reality. In addition to this, young people’s sexual and reproducti­ve health and rights are challenged by the fact that they still need permission from their parents or guardians to get tested for HIV or to access contracept­ives.

As if this is not bad enough, child marriage remains a big challenge, even though it is now common knowledge that it commodifie­s girls, who lose control over their own bodies and struggle to access health services once married off.

Since the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 has disrupted family planning and access to contracept­ives which has fuelled early and unwanted pregnancie­s. We need to face up to this reality.

In about six months of lockdown, thousands of school girls all over east and southern Africa fell pregnant and many did not return to school when restrictio­ns were relaxed. What is the implicatio­n of that to our vision of sustainabl­e developmen­t? A huge chunk of these girls have no remote chance of growing into skilled or knowledgea­ble human resources for developmen­t.

In addition to thousands of girls that fell pregnant and did not return to school, thousands of children have dropped out of school for a plethora of reasons. This will have staggering implicatio­ns for the future.

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