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UN report: nearly half of women and girls “do not own their own bodies”

Hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are ruled by others.

The latest United Nations report by the United Nations Population Fund presents a sobering conclusion – nearly half of women and girls cannot, in many ways, make decisions about their bodies.

My body is my property

“Essentially hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others, “said Dr. Natalia Kame, Executive Director of the Fund [1].

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) carries out activities related to the broad spheres of women’s rights. Its activities focus on informed parenting, improving perinatal conditions, combating sexually transmitted diseases, preventing violence against women, and fighting for gender equality [2].

The UNFPA described the findings of the newly released report as “alarming”. Lack of bodily autonomy puts women at risk, potentially reduces their economic productivity, and imposes additional costs on both national health care and the judicial system. 

The more educated a woman is, the more likely she is to have power over her body. A woman who has the power to decide for herself is also likely to be independent in other areas of her life [3]. 

A report with the meaningful title “My Body is My Own” (My Body is My Own) examined the power of women to make decisions about themselves. It also examined the extent to which domestic laws in different countries support or inhibit this power. 

Alarming data

The report found that in the 57 developing countries from which data was obtained, 45% of women are not fully empowered to make choices about their health care, contraception, and sex lives. 

Significant differences between regions can be noted – in East and Southeast Asia, 76% of women can dispose of their bodies. But already in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and South Asia, it is less than 50%. Unfortunately, there are also countries where more than 90% of women are deprived of control over their bodies. These countries include Mali, Niger, and Senegal.

The authors of the study point to gender discrimination as the source of this disastrous situation, “which reflects and sustains patriarchal systems of power and breeds gender inequality and disempowerment.” Although constitutions often have guaranteed gender equality, in practice women have on average only 75% of the rights enjoyed by men.

A nightmare regulated by law

The report identified the most harmful practices that contribute to the tragic situation of women and girls. 

In 20 countries around the world, laws are in force that allows a rapist to marry his victim. Those laws protect the rapist in order to avoid punishment for his crime. In contrast, 43 legal systems do not address marital rape. 

More than 30 countries in the world do not allow women to move freely outside the home. Guaranteed perinatal care does not even exist in ¾ of the world’s countries. Equal access to contraception is guaranteed by 75% of countries.

Interestingly, the authors of the report stated that the existence of supportive sexual and reproductive rights does not depend on the income level of a country. Low-income countries such as Cambodia, Laos, and Mozambique, for example, enact laws that guarantee equal access to sexual and reproductive health care, information, and education for both men and women.

The situation of many women, especially those who were already vulnerable, worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns fostered domestic violence, psychological violence, physical violence, or sexual abuse. Moreover, access to aid organizations was made more difficult. Also the number of child marriages increased (by up to 10 million according to UNICEF estimates) [4]. 

Small steps forward

In 2020, there were also significant developments in some countries expanding legal protection for women and girls. 

In many countries, including Poland, the current definition of rape has been debated. The debate aimed at updating the definition to be based on lack of consent. For the time being there have been no visible changes for the better. But this is certainly not the last word on women’s reproductive rights. Denmark, on the other hand, has seen a revision of its laws in this regard. 

In December 2020, Argentine women gained the right to abortion. It was the culmination of years of efforts by women’s rights activists. Thus, Argentina joined the group of countries that have recently liberalized legislation on access to legal abortion (among others, Northern Ireland and South Korea). Unfortunately, Poland still has some of the most restrictive solutions in Europe.

South Korea has increased penalties for sexual violence on the Internet. Female genital mutilation (FGM) has been condemned in Sudan, while Egypt has increased the punishment for this crime. Kuwait criminalized domestic violence, and victims were provided access to legal and medical assistance. Pregnant girls in Sierra Leone were restored to attend classes and exams [5].

Sources:

[1] UNFPA, Nearly half of all women are denied their bodily autonomy, says new UNFPA report, My Body is My Own,

[2] United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA,

[3] Full UNFPA report, My body is my own,

[4] UNICEF, COVID-19: A threat to progress against child marriage,

[5] Amnesty International, Raport Roczny 2020-21: zdobycze związane z prawami człowieka (“Amnesty International: 2020-2021 Yearly Report. Human Rights Gains”),

Cover photo: Flavio Jose Pantera via Pixabay.

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