No one has the right to dictate over a woman’s body

Swapna Majumdar, CNS Special Correspondent, India
Dr Natalia Kanem
The ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis, referred to as ‘ethnic cleansing’ by some, has divided the world. Women and girls, who account for more than half the 600,000 refugees who crossed over from Myanmar to Bangladesh, have been the worst affected. Reports of abuse and sexual violence against these displaced and vulnerable women and girls have led to outrage and calls for international sanctions against Myanmar. This is not the first time women have borne the brunt of political conflict and, considering the present troubled state in different parts of the world, it may not be the last either.

In such scenarios, should organizations like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which has been at the forefront of all humanitarian responses, be politically correct?      

“I think that you need to be frank, open and tell the truth and, work across barriers. Not everybody has the same opinion. I cannot impose my views on you but I would like to explain why I am defending the rights of women and girls. When sometimes people make politically correct statements, they are trying to diminish the idea that every woman and girl has equal rights, and we oppose that,” contended Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director, UNFPA.

Dr Natalia Kanem with young people at APCRSHR
She pointed out that responding to violence against women in development and humanitarian settings was a priority for UNFPA. This included promoting the right of all women and girls to live free of violence and abuse, said Dr Kanem in an exclusive interview given on the sidelines of the recently concluded ninth Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual health and Rights (APCRSHR) in Vietnam.

The responsibility of protecting women and girls against sexual and gender based violence in refugee camps, in conflict and fragile situations where there were displaced people is taken very seriously by UNFPA, she said. “It is such a tragedy when a woman is assaulted; her dignity is transgressed. While the counseling we provide is really important when it happens, we want to actually stop it from happening. We believe in zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse.”

It is not just in refugee camps that women are vulnerable and lack basic reproductive and sexual health services. Studies show that 214 million women in the Asia Pacific region are unable to have access to quality family planning services and supplies, depriving them of the right to choose when they want to start a family and how many children they want to have.

“Should someone dictate over her body just because a woman does not have any money? No. Nor should anyone have this right even when she has the money. Economic empowerment for women is fairness and equity. Many women want to work because they want a better life for their family and children. It leads to a higher standard of living, a better health for her and the family,” she said.

Economic empowerment is crucial in a region where women outlive men. Evidence shows that when young, women are not allowed to participate in autonomy or in decision making in the family. And although they start to be taken seriously as they grow older, attention dips once again when they turn 50. This leads to unhappiness and poor outcomes in health.

 “Why should a woman have to be a destitute in her old age? A part of the solution for poor health and poor economies is that a girl should go to school, and participate in the economy, not in a small informal way but in serious jobs that allow her to look after family and gain respect,” said Dr Kanem.

But for that to happen, a woman must have the right to make decisions, especially about her body. The denial of information on reproductive and sexual health and the absence of comprehensive sexuality education in most of the countries in the region, including India, lead a majority of the 6.3 million sexually active adolescent girls to fend for themselves. Ignorance, taboos, fear and inaccessible services contribute to their risk taking behavior. Of the estimated 3.6 million abortions in this region, not enough is known of the psycho-social effect on girls undergoing this procedure against their choice or as a consequence of inaccurate information.

So, how can comprehensive sexuality education change the situation? “Many young girls get pregnant without understanding what happened. Being a doctor, I have seen this happening over and over again,” said Dr Kanem.

She pointed out that many people do not believe her when she says this because it seems unthinkable. “If a teacher is making advances towards a young girl, she may not be able to understand that and can get pregnant. When she gets pregnant, then she is stigmatized. People blame the girl and the man fades into the woodwork. In many cases, she can no longer continue her education and her life is stopped short.” 

It has been accepted that age and culturally appropriate information can help to prevent lives being cut short. Yet, this is denied, sometimes in the name of religion and other times by citing fear that it can corrupt young impressionable minds. “Let us not deny them information and pretend that they are not doing and seeing the things that we did at their age. If they do not get good information, someone will give them bad information. They should not be blamed for being curious. So, schools, parents and families have to educate young people. In fact, young people participating in APCRSHR have recommended that service providers, healthcare workers and religions leaders recognise the importance of comprehensive sexuality education. They want basic knowledge and skills that will help them to protect themselves from doing things that can affect their education, health and career. So we appeal to governments to work with young people, because family planning methods can actually help in avoiding early pregnancy and early sexuality,” said Dr Kanem.

Swapna Majumdar, Citizen News Service - CNS
December 9, 2017

(Swapna Majumdar is a senior journalist based in Delhi and part of CNS Correspondents Team. Follow her on twitter @Majumdar_swapna)