We’re now a third of the way through 2021. We’re still in the midst of a global pandemic that has taken the lives of over 3 million people and has forever changed how many of us operate in the world. Although there is seemingly a light at the end of the tunnel with the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, we would be remiss to not acknowledge the negative, and lasting, impact the pandemic has had on the rights of women and girls globally.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)’s 2021 State of World Population report, lack of bodily autonomy and self-determination has placed record numbers of women and girls at risk of gender-based violence. Natalia Kanem, the Executive Director of UNFPA, explained, “In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their bodies. Their lives are governed by others.”
It is a devastating reality that in 2021 women and girls are still being denied their fundamental human rights. Bodily autonomy means having the agency to make choices about our bodies, and, as a result, our futures. When women and girls are denied this right, not only does it reinforce norms that uphold gender inequality, it also puts them at risk for gender-based violence.
The report lists that sexual violence, child marriage, forced sterilization, reproductive coercion, ‘honor’ killings, and denial of comprehensive sex education are ways in which societies continue to violate bodily autonomy and integrity.
Going forward, how do we ensure women and girls live self-determined lives, free from violence?
We know that educating girls leads to their empowerment, where they are then more likely to have the resources and the confidence to make informed decisions about their health, well-being, and futures. Moreover, investing in girls’ education contributes to overall economic growth while improving their future wages, job titles, and power in decision making. The benefits in advancing the upward mobility of women and girls through education is a necessary step in safeguarding their autonomy.
Access to Comprehensive Reproductive Health Care
Ensuring that contraceptives are affordable and accessible is crucial to improving the status of women and girls globally. Empowering women to control whether, when, and with whom they have children gives them personal agency, improves their health outcomes, and reduces their risk of unintended pregnancies. When women have full autonomy over their fertility, they tend, on average, to have smaller families, which bring benefits to girls in the form of improved nutrition, more years of schooling, and later marriage. Empowering women and girls to take charge of their reproductive health improves their own lives, and the ripple effects improve the lives of their children and the lives of other women and girls in their communities through changing cultural norms around family size and the opportunities that should be available to women and girls.
Challenging Discriminatory Norms
To improve the lives of women and girls, we need to work together to change the discriminatory narratives that have been used to reinforce gender inequality. This means challenging norms, institutions, and laws that have historically denied women the opportunity to be leaders in their countries, communities, and households. Additionally, men’s support is critical to challenging the patriarchy and achieving gender equality.