Highlights from the panel Bodily Autonomy and Sexual Rights held 20 September 2016 during the 33rd session of the UN Human Rights Council. The panel articulated the benefits of advancing a holistic and intersectional understanding of bodily autonomy, explored the interlinkages between sexual rights issues affecting bodily autonomy, and encouraged the Human Rights Council to continue to produce contextualized analyses of sexuality and gender in relation to bodily autonomy.
- If we are to examine all the ways in which people’s sexual rights are violated, the list is long but the pattern that begins to emerge and the thread running through all these different violations relates to bodily autonomy: the right to make free and informed decisions about one’s own body and one’s own life.
- All bodies are not considered equal, all bodies are not valued the same and all bodies are not subject to the same regulations and control. The State places restrictions on what you do with your own body and what others can do to your body without your consent. This may be acted out through the guise of protection, public morality, in the name of nationalism, security or religion, but the limitations placed on some bodies and not others, and the impunity for violence to some bodies and not others, makes it clear that discrimination and subjugation are at work.
Carrie Shelver , Coalition of African Lesbians & SRI
- The principle of bodily integrity in feminist thought relates to the right of each human being to autonomy and self-determination over their own body. For the Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL), this principle envisions a society in which all people are able to exercise autonomy over their bodies and lives, and make decisions that affect their own bodies and lives without interference or dictation by individuals (such as fathers, brothers, and husbands), institutions (such as the government), religious doctrine and tradition, and the society and community as a whole.
- CAL believes that by locating our work and demands outside of narrow and rigid identity and single issue politics, we are better able to improve the lives of all people, and particularly women who experience multiple and intersecting forms of oppression. We have found that the demand for autonomy, freedom and justice offers us a new frontier of resistance and presents us with opportunities for movement building that cut across race, gender, class and geographic lines.
- Market fundamentalism and neo-liberal economic policy continue to enslave Southern nations and ensure that those who live within its borders get poorer with fewer options of state provided health care, housing, education and other essential services and constitutionally promised rights. Within this economic reality, choice is promoted as the right to consume (privatised services and commercial goods) rather than the ideal where a person’s rights are so fully protected that she is able to make decisions over every aspect of her life freely.
- Just as we must resist the co-opting of autonomy and choice by those who would want to claim it as an individualistic and consumerist idea, we must also find ways to resist women’s bodies becoming the test/ symbol of our ‘authentic’, nationalist ideals (also often an expression of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial ideology). When we can’t resist the “westernising” influence fully, we turn to women’s bodies as the site where our authentic “non-western” identity is maintained intact.
- CAL’s work takes place in a context where violence and violation (in other words the “freedom from…” rights approach) has taken precedence over approaches that prioritise autonomy, agency, freedom and justice (or the rights associated with ‘freedom to…”). In CAL’s view this has a number of negative effects – firstly it relegates women into the perpetual category of victim (requiring saving) and can obscure the structural and systemic conditions which lead to these violations. A “freedom from violence” perspective can result in locking women up rather than eliminating the violence or holding violators accountable. There is a risk that we become guilty of protecting women instead of protecting women’s rights. When we protect women, we reinscribe and reinforce the very ideas that fuel the violence in the first place.
Fernando D’Elio, Akahata & SRI
- Bodily Autonomy is a key, cross-cutting and deeply related issue to human rights, and certainly to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. It is also interrelated among them and with a wide range of other rights, and threatened by exclusion that many people and groups face and by intersectional forms of discrimination.
- Many SRHR issues addressed by this Council and by states are related to bodily autonomy, even those which seem not to be. Some of them are obvious, such as early and force marriage, intersex persons’ rights, sexual violence, sex work, human rights related to SOGIE, among others, some of them are particularly related to women’s rights such as female genital mutilation, contraception, abortion etc. Other issues, that ARE also related to sexual rights such as comprehensive sexuality education sometimes seem not to be as closely linked to bodily autonomy as they should be – how can anybody possibly enjoy their sexual rights without knowing them or having accurate and scientifically based information to make decisions? This is the connection between sexuality education and bodily autonomy. I
- tried to bring some good examples of recommendations made in the UPR on sexual rights issues but none of them mention bodily autonomy. This concept is completely overlooked, few of those recommendations say something timid about informed decision, but that’s as far as they go, and mostly relegates women’s health to reproduction, maternity or maternal mortality and mobility.
- It is time for all of us working on human rights and sexual rights to rid ourselves of the fear of this concept and stop considering it as a taboo, to embrace and make it visible. This is the only way that sexual rights can be addressed and advanced in a comprehensive and meaningful way. Otherwise we are telling just half the story, a story of vulnerability, threats and weakness that can be solved with paternalism and care, and at the same time hiding a very important story, the one of freedom, self-determination and capability that every human being is entitle and that the concept of bodily autonomy brings.
Brief presentation of the SRI National Laws and Policies Database
- The idea behind presenting the database during this panel was to show the multitude of ways our sexual rights and bodily autonomy is restricted by the state.
- Through this tool we can see that there are many laws and policies on sexual rights in every country and the connections between the different issues.
- All laws and policies listed have an impact on how a person’s bodily autonomy is regulated.
To learn more about the database visit