NEW YORK / BANGKOK, 14 April 2021 – Nearly half of women in 57 developing countries are denied the right to decide whether to have sex with their partners, use contraception or seek health care, according to the State of World Population Report 2021 released today by United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA).
For the first time, a United Nations report focuses on bodily autonomy: the power and agency to make choices about your body, without fear of violence or having someone else decide for you. This lack of bodily autonomy has massive implications beyond the profound harms to individual women and girls: potentially depressing economic productivity, undercutting skills, and resulting in extra costs to health care and judicial systems.
Through this groundbreaking report, UNFPA is measuring both women’s power to make their own decisions about their bodies and the extent to which countries’ laws support or interfere with a woman’s right to make these decisions. The data show a strong link between decision-making power and higher levels of education. The report shows that in countries where data are available:
“The fact that nearly half of women still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or seek health care should outrage us all,” says UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others.”
The report shows 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. Real solutions, the report finds, must take into account the needs and experiences of those affected.
In Mongolia, for example, persons with disabilities organized to give direct input to the government about their sexual and reproductive health needs. In Angola, young people educated about their bodies, health and rights have been able to seek health care, use family planning, decline sex and petition for justice after sexual violence.
“The denial of bodily autonomy is a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights that reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination,” says Dr. Kanem. “It is nothing less than an annihilation of the spirit, and it must stop. By contrast, a woman who has control over her body is more likely to be empowered in other spheres of her life. She gains not only in terms of autonomy, but also through advances in health and education, income and safety. She is more likely to thrive, and so is her family.”
“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, persistent negative social norms and gender inequality hindered universal access to sexual and reproductive health and other key aspects of bodily autonomy and integrity,” notes Bjorn Andersson, UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Director. “The pandemic has further highlighted and exacerbated the harms that women and girls face, from female genital mutilation and child marriage to so-called virginity testing and horrific violence against women. Our collective action to strengthen rights and choices is now more crucial than ever as we seek to build back better. The health, wellbeing and prosperity of millions depend on this.”
Complete report can be accessed here: State of the World Population 2021
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter below and never miss the latest Updates.