United Nations

Nearly half of women in 57 developing countries are denied the right to decide whether to have sex with their partners, use contraception or seek health care — the three dimensions of bodily autonomy, according to a UN report.

Only 55 percent of women in those countries are fully empowered to make choices over all three dimensions of bodily autonomy, the annual flagship State of World Population Report of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the UN sexual and reproductive health agency.

“The fact that nearly half of women still cannot make their own decisions about whether or not to have sex, use contraception or seek health care should outrage us all,” said UNFPA Executive Director Natalia Kanem in a press release on Wednesday. “In essence, hundreds of millions of women and girls do not own their own bodies. Their lives are governed by others.”

The report is based on responses to questions posed to women aged 15 to 49 years in demographic and health surveys in 57 countries, most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Percentages vary across regions. While 76 percent of adolescent girls and women in eastern and southeastern Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean make autonomous decisions in all three dimensions, this figure is less than 50 percent in sub-Saharan Africa and central and southern Asia, the report shows.

Regional aggregates mask substantial differences across countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where about 50 percent of women make autonomous decisions over all three dimensions of bodily autonomy, the figures in Mali, Niger and Senegal are below 10 percent.

The data also show inconsistencies across the three dimensions: a high percentage in one dimension does not automatically mean high percentages in others. In Mali, for example, 77 percent of women take independent or joint decisions on contraceptive use, but only 22 percent are able to do the same in seeking health care.

In Ethiopia, 53 percent of women are able to say no to sex, but 94 percent can independently or jointly make decisions about contraception.

“The denial of bodily autonomy is a violation of women and girls’ fundamental human rights that reinforces inequalities and perpetuates violence arising from gender discrimination,” said Kanem.”It is nothing less than an annihilation of the spirit, and it must stop.”

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