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Bodily autonomy is a human right

At the Generation Equality Forum in Paris this week, we champion bodily autonomy for all women, everywhere.

By Alanna Armitage

In April this year, Aizada Kanatbekova, a young woman of 27 years, was abducted by a group of men in broad daylight as she walked on the street in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The men forced her into a car and drove away with her. Two days later, she was found in the car. She had been strangled to death.


The horrific murder of Aizada Kanatbekova is an example of the most extreme form of violation of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity. But, all around the world, including in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, women and girls are not in control over their bodies and their lives.


Globally, too many women and girls are subjected to brutal practices such as female genital mutilation, virginity testing and rape with impunity. In the countries where we have data, nearly half of women lack the power to make their own decisions about whether to have sex with their partner, whether to use contraception and whether to see a doctor.


In Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the share of women who aren’t allowed to make decisions in at least one of these areas is generally lower, but is still considerable. 19 per cent in Ukraine, 23 per cent in Kyrgyzstan, 31 per cent in Albania, and 34 per cent in Armenia. In Tajikistan the figures are far higher; 67 per cent of women can’t make autonomous decisions on these fundamental issues.


Bodily autonomy is a foundation of gender equality and for the enjoyment of all human rights—including the right to health and the right to live free from violence—and dismantling gender inequalities in social norms and practice is key. Dozens of countries do not even acknowledge that non-consensual sex between married spouses is rape.


Girls and boys need empowerment—to claim their rights to make healthy decisions and engage in healthy and safe behaviours. Laws that protect women from violations of their rights, including ending child marriage and gender-based violence, must be enforced.


More men must become allies. Many more men should commit to uprooting gender inequality and all forms of discrimination and promote bodily autonomy. At the same time, we need to support paternity and parental leave policies to encourage men to participate in caregiving.


While this is a bold goal, gender equality is also an internationally agreed one, as the fifth Sustainable Development Goal, and as the purpose of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the twenty-fifth anniversary of which we are observing in 2021.


All countries can do more to achieve gender equality since no country is there yet. Governments have a lead role to play in reaching that goal. By fulfilling their obligations under human rights treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, governments can alter the social, political, institutional and economic structures that reinforce and thrive on gender-unequal norms.


But we must look beyond obligations and towards opportunities: 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, education, income and safety. She is more likely to thrive, and so is her family.


At UNFPA, we know that communities and countries flourish only when all women are empowered to make their own informed decisions about their bodies and lives. As a co-leader of the Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights which is convening at the Generation Equality Forum in Paris this week, UNFPA champions the right to sexual and reproductive health and care including, family planning, advocating for safe birth and maternal health, eradicating gender-based violence and harmful practices and endorsing comprehensive sexuality education.


We empower women to govern their own bodies by providing a full range of reproductive health services and supporting education about their bodies and their rights. We help men become champions of gender equality, take equal responsibility for parenting, and learn to communicate about sexual and reproductive health. We empower women and girls and men and boys to adopt healthy behaviours and prepare for healthy relationships. We help governments measure and track autonomy so they can monitor progress and fulfil their human rights obligations.


Across the region, governments, civil society and individuals are stepping up to make bodily autonomy a reality for all. The government of North Macedonia, for example, has championed laws that strengthen gender equality and protections against gender-based violence, and is co-leading the global Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy.


Action is vital so that women and girls throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia—women like Aizada Kanatbekova in Bishkek—can walk along a street without fear of abuse, attack, abduction or murder. And help us realize a world of greater justice and human well-being, which benefits us all.


Alanna Armitage is the Director of UNFPA’s Regional Office for Eastern Europe and Central Asia