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This photo taken on January 30 2018 shows a warning sign against female genital mutilation in Katabok village, northeast Uganda. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP PHOTO/YASUYOSHI CHIBA
This photo taken on January 30 2018 shows a warning sign against female genital mutilation in Katabok village, northeast Uganda. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/AFP PHOTO/YASUYOSHI CHIBA

Only about half of women and girls in developing countries are able to make decisions over their own bodies, such as whether they want to have sex, seek healthcare and use contraception, a UN report said on Wednesday.

From being denied access to contraception or abortion services, made to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM), enduring virginity tests, or married as children — women and girls are often forced to give up control over their bodies, it said.

“The right to autonomy over our bodies means we must have the power and agency to make choices without fear of violence or having someone else decide for us,” said Natalia Kanem, head of the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, UNFPA.

Women in Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central Asia are least likely to have control over their bodies, such as being able to refuse sex with a partner or accessing sexual healthcare without needing permission from a male relative, UNFPA said.

In some places, including Mali, Niger and Senegal, only 10% of women have “bodily autonomy”, said the report, which analysed multiple data sets on gender equality, sexual health and access to contraception in 57 countries.

Kanem said social taboos around sex and entrenched patriarchy prevent women and girls from having any say, as male relatives tended to have power over women’s choices.

“Gender inequality is the most insidious and pervasive impediment to bodily autonomy. It starts from the cradle,” Kanem, a paediatrician and epidemiologist, said in an online media briefing. “Gender unequal norms and attitudes lead to power imbalances that restrict women’s decision-making ... [driving] the expectation that women and girls will yield to others in all aspects of their lives.”

Kanem added that the coronavirus pandemic had worsened existing inequalities for women and girls. “What was previously bad is now worse with the Covid-19 pandemic which has resulted in increasing sexual violence, more unintended pregnancies, and new barriers to health access along with job and education losses.”

The UNFPA said last April that global lockdowns could lead to a 20% surge in domestic violence as victims remain trapped at home with their abusers. Researchers also predict there could be an extra 13-million child marriages and another 2-million cases of FGM in the next decade as the pandemic stymies global efforts to end both practices.

Deepening poverty caused by a global recession could also drive more families to marry off their daughters early, the UNFPA said.

Despite such setbacks, a World Bank report in February said 27 countries reformed laws or regulations to give women more economic equality with men in 2019/2020.

Thomson Reuters Foundation

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