THE United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Zimbabwe’s Assistant Country Representative, Ms Abbigail Msemburi says woman and girls should have power to make decisions over their bodies as a first step towards ending child marriages, traditional harmful practices and all forms of abuse.
By Michael Gwarisa
Presenting findings from the 2021 State of the World Population (SWOP) Report during a virtual commemoration of the World Population Day, Ms Msemburi said majority of women were still denied bodily autonomy and data from the SWOP indicated that half of women in 57 developing countries are denied their bodily autonomy.
What’s important about allowing individuals to have bodily autonomy is that once you do that, and you give women and girls their rights to make decisions over their bodies, you empower them and once they are empowered, they are likely to be able to have a lot of much more control in their spheres of their lives.
“When decisions are made for women and young girls, there is a denial of bodily autonomy and integrity and this now manifests in many forms that we usually talk about as harmful practices when we are programming and supporting vulnerable groups. In Zimbabwe, we have seen child marriages, there is also an aspect of age-appropriate comprehensive sexuality education and also an aspect of forced marriages,” said Ms Msemburi.
She added that in other countries, additional harmful practices include forced sterilization on even contraceptive use, breast ironing, Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and others.
“These harmful practices are what we are talking about and we are saying that we need to empower individuals, women and girls so that there able to make decisions so that they avoid being survivors or victims of these harmful practices.
“The results on decision making from the SWOP Report indicate that just over 55% of women are able to make their own decisions in the dimensi0ons of bodily autonomy. That is they are able to seek healthcare, they are able seek Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services, they are able use contraception. What it tells us is that almost half of the women in the world are not able to make those decisions around those issues, somebody else is making decisions for them.”
She also said there are four critical areas that determine women’s decision-making power or bodily autonomy.
“Firstly, the community where the women lives really has an impact on the how and at what level a women or a young girl or individual is able to make a decision influenced by the norms and values within that community. There is also the health system that individual interacts with what type of health system are they interacting with, what is the proximity of the health system, are they far away, are very near and what type of care are they getting.
“There is also the very immediate environment of the individual, here we are talking of partners, spouses, we are talking of relatives and extended family and what’s key within that family setting as communication. Fourthly there is the socio-economic factor, to what level the women are girls are educated. The more educated they are, the better they get in terms of making informed decisions about their bodies.”
She added discussing Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) issues with men was still considered taboo in some sectors of society and some health systems might not facilitate bodily autonomy because there is absence of adolescent and youth responsive services and also the issue shortages of preferred methods of contraception was a major drawback.
“On Inter-personal relationships also what’s notable within this interpersonal relationship as a factor that affects women and individuals’ autonomy is that family members for example mothers-in-law have a voice matters and they do have an influence in the family so they play an important role in decision making.”
The notion of bodily autonomy looks at gender equality and expanding choices for women and girls and it emerged in the 1970s as feminist movement but as time moved, at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) there was a broadening of autonomy to include all other factors around empowering of individuals and this was reemphasized in 2019 in Kenya at the Nairobi summit or ICPD25 where quite a number of countries committed to ensure bodily integrity and autonomy.
“In 2018, all countries endorsed the 2030 agenda for sustainable development and one of the goals which is the fifth goal is on gender equality and the Nairobi Summit in 2019, the governments once again committed to the Three Zeros that if Zero Maternal Mortality, Zero unmet need for contraception and Zero sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) and harmful practices.
“You will notice that within these three zeros, there is that full realization of bodily autonomy for women and girls. There was a call to action to really accelerate the achievement of these goals in the last decade of action from 2020 to 2030. To really make sure that there is progress made countries and members states that have committed to ensuring gender equality, the 2030 agenda takes a critical step further, it really measures the progress towards the universal access or equality,” said Ms Msemburi.