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Sexual and reproductive rights: are we really free to choose?

Amongst basic human rights, sexual and reproductive rights are instrumental for women and gender equality in general.

da Giada | 17 April 2022
A woman is marching for reproductive rights
Cecilia Grandi

Throughout the world, Western countries included, millions of women and girls still do not have decisional autonomy over their own bodies. Sexual and reproductive rights are fundamental, and yet the fight for self-determination is still ongoing. Beyond women, this is about gender equality and giving everyone the freedom and power to decide for themselves and control their bodies.

Sexual and reproductive rights: what are they and why are they necessary?

“Each of us has a right to bodily autonomy and should therefore have the power to make our own choices about our bodies, and to have those choices supported by everyone around us, and by our societies at large.”

This statement from Dr. Natalia Kanem, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA (the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency), serves as the foreword to “My body is my own”, a report on the State of World Population. It is no secret that, for many women and girls still, this basic right is still negated and violated. Many are abused and taken advantage of without the power or freedom to say no, when it comes to sexual intercourse, intimate health or pregnancy.

What are sexual and reproductive rights? They are a fundamental part of human rights, which implies all states have a duty to respect, protect and satisfy all needs related to women’s sexual and reproductive rights.

Guaranteeing these rights means guaranteeing universal access to reproductive healthcare, such as safe and legal abortion, contraception and sexual education. This in turn requires quality healthcare structures that are easy to access from a geographic and economic standpoint, without any kind of discrimination.

Women only enjoy 75% of legal rights enjoyed by men

Despite increasing awareness and constitutional guarantees towards gender equality, the UN reports reveals that women only enjoy 75% of rights enjoyed by men. This is about more than women however: for the LGBTQIA+ community, adequate healthcare is still at a very early stage. la sanità è ancora in una fase embrionale. For too many still, access is difficult, with long waiting lists and a number of obstacles; this is especially true for transgender and non-binary people.

“My body, my choice”: are we there yet?

Even in the likeliest settings, most women do not feel free to be open about their health, sexuality and pleasure: shame and stigma are very much real. Autonomy and self-determination are at the root of sexual and reproductive justice throughout the world. And they’re highly necessary: someone who controls their own bodies is in a better position to control the rest of their lives.

How do we measure the power to choose? The latest UN report shows that, beyond access to reproductive healthcare, more needs to be done to truly give women the space and opportunity to decide. To measure this data and move closer to reaching full sexual and reproductive rights for all (amongst the goals of the 2030 Agenda), the UN created a survey based on three questions:

  • In terms of your healthcare, who makes decisions?
  • Who decides how and when you can use contraception?
  • Can you say no to your husband/partner if you do not wish to engage in sexual intercourse?

Although only a quarter of countries were involved, the results are highly concerning: only 55% of women and girls have full autonomy,y in all three decisional areas.

Promoting education and self-determination for all

The freedom to choose for oneself and make one’s own life decisions; to access safe and official healthcare structures; to receive an education designed to give the necessary tools for self-determination: institutions themselves often get in the way of these basic rights. In Italy for instance, between 80% and 100% of staff (gynaecologists, nurses etc.) are hostile to abortion in no fewer than 72 hospitals, and that despite the 194 law on access to abortion.

Creating awareness becomes a crucial tool. Especially when rights are violated and legal procedures are considered a crime. Many campaigns and associations work tirelessly to provide free and open information to women and girls, so they have the necessary resources to exercise their freedom to choose and know what is best.

Self-determination when it comes to one’s body, sexual wellness or social and economic status: still not a reality for many women. Removing economic, social and institutional obstacles to reach true gender equality is easy feat. As we keep moving further in our defence of human rights, we need to form global networks to empower everyone with the right knowledge and tools to finally have a chance to choose.

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