Women Activists Escalate Demand for “Bodily Autonomy” as 19 Nations Dissent
By Thalif Deen*
UNITED NATIONS, Jan 17 2020 (IPS) – The United States and 18
other UN member states have come under fire for denying a woman’s legitimate
right to “bodily autonomy”—the right to self-governance over one’s own body
without coercion or external pressure.
Executive Director of Women’s March Global, Uma Mishra-Newbery, told IPS the
United Nations has worked towards progress in fighting for women’s rights.
But many countries on the Human Rights Council continue to
negotiate women’s human rights off the table, she pointed out.
In Sept 2019, she said, the world watched as the US, in
partnership with 18 other member states, put forth a statement saying there is
no international right to abortion.
She said UN member states have also witnessed “the continued
and grave human rights violations in Saudi Arabia”, including the continued
torture of imprisoned women human rights defenders like Loujain al-Hathloul.
“Yet the UN and member states fail to hold Saudi Arabia
truly accountable for its actions. The UN must hold these governments
accountable as they work to strip women’s rights away without repercussions”,
Beside the United States, the 18 countries singled out
include Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt,
Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Saudi
Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
The member states who deny women access to safe and legal
abortion represent 1.3 billion people, according to Women’s March Global.
As part of a global campaign for women’s reproductive
rights, Women’s March Global has called attention to the “dangerous and
alarming repeal of women’s rights to bodily autonomy, bringing international
attention to these pressing issues.”
The 45 marches—the fourth annual event, with the
participation of millions of women and allies – took place in Africa, Canada,
Central and South America, Europe and Asia.
Purnima Mane, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and
Deputy Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS the March
on January 18 to protest the inadequate progress and sometimes downright
rollback of women’s right to exercise bodily autonomy through the right to
abortion, “comes at a critical juncture in our history.”
She said as many as 48 of the 58 existing UN countries,
signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
Nonetheless, the UN as a body, has been limited in its work
on abortion, due to its exclusion as a right from human rights treaties as a
result of significant opposition from many quarters, she added.
“Besides, these treaties are not legally binding and some
countries specifically see these issues as covered by domestic law.”
For example, she said, the Programme of Action (PoA) of the
1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), focuses on
the obligation of governments to prevent unsafe abortion but does not refer to
making abortion legal.
This obligation can of course open the door for national
debates on how women’s overall health and bodily autonomy are linked.
International human rights treaties which most governments have ratified,
support the right of women to liberty and to health.
The UN often provides platforms to learn from examples of
countries which have implemented these rights successfully, integrating women’s
rights more broadly, including the right to bodily autonomy, said Mane, who is
a former President and CEO of Pathfinder International.
Antonia Kirkland, a global lead at Equality Now, told IPS
that UN Women, alongside the Mexican and French governments and feminists
around the world, have chosen bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive
health rights as one of the Generation Equality Forum’s six Action Coalition
themes to in the lead up to Beijing +25.
“This is a good sign that attention and resources are being
focused in this direction and can hopefully help counteract moves towards
greater restrictions on access to abortion in countries like the USA, as well
as forced pregnancy and motherhood in Latin American countries”.
Kirkland said over the past few years, there has been an
alarming and sustained rollback on women’s sexual and reproductive health and
rights around the world.
Focusing the first women’s rights March of the new decade on
bodily autonomy is about shining a much-needed spotlight on the systematic
oppression that continues to prevent women and girls from exercising
self-governance over their own body and reproductive choices, she noted.
Mane said abortion has, in fact, been available in many
countries for years but it is heavily regulated with severe restrictions which
make it difficult to access.
Over the last few years, these restrictions have grown
rapidly almost globally. Animosity towards contraception complicates the
situation even though there is ample evidence to show that preventing
unintended pregnancies through access to modern contraception, reduces abortion
rates in the first place, she added.
“The combination of restrictions in the practice of legal
abortion and poor access to contraception for avoiding unintended pregnancies,
lead to an increase in unsafe abortion and high rates of morbidity and
mortality among women”, said Mane, who has served on boards of several
international, non-profit organizations including as Governor of the Board of
Governors, International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada.
Mane also pointed out that women’s right to access to
contraception is the first and essential step advocated by UNFPA for enhancing
women’s health and reproductive rights.
“If women receive the needed education and information, have
access to appropriate services and commodities, and benefit from a conducive
policy and programme environment, their ability and right to make decisions
concerning their own bodies will be enhanced which will benefit their health
She said the UN assists national governments in the process
of making all of the above happen through the supportive role they play
globally and nationally.
Organizations like UNFPA need all the support and
encouragement they can get to do their bit in moving the world towards the goal
of ensuring that women are in a position to make decisions concerning their own
bodies and ultimately their own lives.”
Kirkland said the United Nations has a vital role to play in
the protection of women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health and rights,
and this involves working in partnership with member states to ensure that
everyone is free to make their own decisions about their body, and is able to
easily access family planning support, healthcare services and information.
*UN Bureau Chief and
Regional Director IPS North America, has been covering the U.N. since the late
1970s. A former deputy news editor of the Sri Lanka Daily News, he was a senior
editorial writer on the Hong Kong daily, The Standard. He can be contacted at email@example.com