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Regional Director's Statement at the Namibia High Level Event on Generation Equality Forum: Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights

A very good morning from Johannesburg.

I am very honoured to join you all today at this national gathering, ahead of the global Generation Equality Forum Summit set to take place later this week in Paris.

My gratitude to the Government of Namibia, the Ambassadors of France, Mexico and Denmark, UN Women and other civil society organizations for collaborating with and supporting UNFPA to make this event possible.

Your Excellency, Right Hon. Prime Minister, thank you for such inspiring and grounding remarks. UNFPA commends you personally for your commitment and interest in the empowerment of women and girls and is pleased to know of your participation in the upcoming Paris Summit. 

We will continue with our joint efforts to maintain the momentum of the Generation Equality coalitions in particular, the coalition on Bodily Autonomy and SRHR – which UNFPA co-convenes. Further, we remain committed to supporting the Government of Namibia in collaboration with other partners to address the priority issues of gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights, with a keen focus on innovative interventions.

Honourable Prime Minister, Ministers, Distinguished Guests,

A few weeks ago, I joined the UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem on a mission to the Eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We met a young woman named Larise, a survivor of sexual violence, who detailed how she was raped and violated by a group of men, leading to a five-month stay in hospital to repair her broken body.

Now physically recovered, but forever changed by the experience, Larise’s story echoes those of millions of women and girls globally whose lives have been shattered because their bodies have been disrespected and their rights abused. For far too many women and girls, life is fraught with violations of their agency and bodily autonomy. 

Allow me then, to get straight to the heart of the matter. As a region, we must recognize the right to bodily autonomy and understand its fundamental impact on individuals, and its centrality to our development aspirations.

I would therefore like to frame my remarks around three central questions.

What is bodily autonomy and why does it matter?

Bodily autonomy means having the power and agency to make choices over one’s body and future, without violence, coercion or discrimination. Fundamentally, bodily autonomy is about the power to decide; it’s about choice. Above all, it’s about human dignity.

Intertwined is the right to bodily integrity — to be free from non-consensual physical acts such as child marriage, female genital mutilation and virginity testing; and the right to self-determination – the ability to control one’s life.

These rights play out in everyday decisions – the right to have a say in sexual matters, to say yes to contraception, to decide if and when to get pregnant, and to make healthcare choices.

These seem like obvious rights – and they should be – yet in the latest UNFPA State of the World Population Report titled My Body is My Own, we are confronted with the devastating reality that often these very intimate decisions about women’s bodies and lives are taken out of women’s hands by another – their male partner, their family, their societies – even their governments.

Only 55% of women in the 57 countries surveyed – of which 17 were in East and Southern Africa, can make their own choice over their bodies and futures without fearing some form of violence or other negative repercussions.

The SWOP report highlights that overall 64% of women in Southern Africa have the power to make their own sexual and reproductive health decisions. A closer look reveals that while 89% and 94% have the power to decide on contraception use and accessing healthcare, respectively, only 75% have the power to say no to sex.

The data reflects legal barriers to full and equal Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services. Access to these services may be restricted based on marital status, age, third-party authorization including spousal, parental or guardian.

And when countries have favourable legal provisions to sexual and reproductive health and rights – implementation still remains subject to personal beliefs and misinformation.

It is against this background that we have to realise that a lot more needs to be done and this brings me to the second central question.

What will it cost us if we do not ensure bodily autonomy and integrity for women and girls?

In the East and Southern Africa region, we see the inability to decide about one’s own body in the fact that one-in-ten adolescents give birth before reaching the age of 20, and nearly one-quarter of all maternal deaths occur among adolescents.

Though many countries have criminalized gender-based violence (GBV), and have outlawed child marriage and female genital mutilation, still one-in-three girls are being married by age 18, and one-in-six young women continue to experience gender-based violence.

Over the past year and a half, the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneous conflict and climate-related humanitarian emergencies in the Southern Africa region have set women back further.

For instance, in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and indeed in Namibia, we have evidence that during the pandemic adolescent girls have experienced increases in violence, child marriage, deteriorating mental health, and teenage pregnancies due to school closures and limited access to sexual and reproductive health services and information.

Denying women and girls of the fundamental right to make decisions about their body also has massive implications beyond the profound harms to individual women and girls: potentially depressing economic productivity, undercutting skills, and resulting in extra costs to health care and judicial systems.

With the largest concentration of young people globally, the attainment of the sustainable development goals and Africa’s reaping a demographic dividend, rests for the most part, on the extent of women and girls’ bodily autonomy!

What can we do NOW to advance the rights and choices of women and girls?

We know the determinants of women’s decision-making power: these are positive gender norms, affordable, quality healthcare, supportive interpersonal relationships and quality education and socio-economic status. What is now required is urgent, collective action.

The UNFPA State of the World Population Report – My Body is My Own – calls for three critical measures to ensure that every woman and girl can decide about own body and allow me to touch on these briefly.

The first is to end control of women’s lives and ensure them full autonomy and agency.

The denial of bodily autonomy and integrity is rooted in gender inequality and the desire to control women’s lives. Marital rape for example is not a crime in more than half of African countries while physical abuse is often permitted. Women’s fundamental right to make decisions over their bodies and their futures in our region must be guaranteed and protected.

A second measure is to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health care and information with zero tolerance for discrimination and violence.

This includes the reform and enforcement of laws and policies that support the provision of and access to SRHR to women and girls and human rights-based legislation to ensure a minimum age of consent to access comprehensive healthcare services including sexual and reproductive health services.

All forms of violence and harmful practices that impede women’s access to SRHR must be outlawed. In Sub-Saharan Africa, less than 65 per cent of countries have laws specifically criminalising domestic violence and where legislation exists it is often limited in scope or not enforced. 

The third measure is to empower women and girls by providing them with a full range of reproductive health services and information, investing in comprehensive sexuality education, and working with men and boys as allies and champions for gender equality.

UNFPA supports our partners to accelerate the work to empower women and girls, strengthen bodily autonomy and advance gender equality.

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, we commend the governments in the region for continuing to place the work to end gender-based violence at the top of the political agenda and ensuring SRH and GBV prevention and response are part of the essential services available and accessible to all.

In this regard, UNFPA is working with the SADC parliamentary forum and national legislators to develop and adopt a SADC Model Law on GBV, to domesticate the SADC Model Law on Child Marriage, to adopt the SADC PF Gender Responsive Oversight Model for Parliaments, alongside the advocacy efforts in supporting the SADC Resolution CSW 60/2 Programme of Action and the ESA Commitment on CSE and YFHS through the UNFPA flagship programme - Safeguard Young People.

We are also supporting and partnering with the Africa Union on the Campaign to end Child Marriage, the Saleema Initiative on female genital mutilation, the Spotlight Initiative to prevent VAWG, including the Africa Regional Programme and the operationalization of the AU Road Map on DD and investing in young people; and we continue to forge ahead with ILO and sisters UN agencies on the Joint Programme for Gender Responsive Budgeting.

Without these actions to secure the bodily autonomy of every individual, we risk deepening inequalities, and undeniably, the transformative goals of ending the unmet need for contraception, preventable maternal deaths and gender-based violence and harmful practices by 2030, will remain out of reach.

Honourable Ministers, Distinguished Guests,

Presented with the data and information in the 2021 SWOP Report, we cannot deny that rapid progress is needed now. Our task is clear and our time is limited. Societies prosper when women and girls can make their own decisions with confidence.

The Generation Equality Forum events in Mexico City earlier this year and the upcoming Paris Summit mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and have provided an important roadmap to help get countries back on track for a final push towards gender equality by 2030.

The Generation Equality Forum is spurring a bold, catalytic, agenda of commitments for gender equality.

Within this Forum, UNFPA is co-convening the Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, as I mentioned earlier. We are using this platform to sustain the 2019 Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 commitments made by governments and partners to accelerate action to achieve gender equality and advance SRHR.

RT Honourable PM, Ministers, Distinguished Guests,

In closing, we all have a role to play in upholding women’s rights and ending discrimination more broadly.

This is the decade of Action. And we must collectively take actions that builds up to the full realization of the rights and choices of women and girls every day and in every way.

This must be our resolve for the new “Generation Equality”. And I firmly believe, together we can make this happen.

I thank you for your kind attention.