Her body, her choice: Politics of control and ownership over women's bodies

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Her body, her choice: Politics of control and ownership over women's bodies

Candice Chirwa

21 Mar 2020

3min min read
  • Women's rights

omen’s bodies are political. This is a statement frequently heard in protests. And although the phrase might sound like a big statement, there is truth to it. Women’s sexuality and fertility have historically been subjected to control by individual men, the family and, even by the state.

The concept known as ‘body politics’ is used to analyse how state policies create (or do not create) space for women’s agency. The most obvious and contested of all women’s rights is their right to decide over their own bodies and there are a multitude of layers and double standards that exist in this regard.

At the global level, the adoption of the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), are key international examples of the significant gains achieved within the Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) environment. 

Narrowing our scope to South Africa, women and children also enjoy a high status as our country boasts a progressive Constitution as well as a legislative framework founded on the basis of human rights and gender equality. Indeed, South Africa does not have a shortage of progressive and robust SRH policies, as South Africa stands out for its formal rights framework and has been praised globally for the substantive protection given to women and their bodies. 

However, despite these significant gains on paper, patriarchal rules and cultural norms around women’s bodies remain.

Gender-based violence, virginity testing and forced sterilisations

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world. While victims of Gender Based Violence (GBV) include men, women, and children, there is a general consensus that women and children are disproportionately affected and hence bear the greater burden of such assaults.  Indicative of this, according to reports, the South African Police Service (SAPS) recorded 177,620 crimes against women in the 2017/18 financial year that ended 31 March 2019. These statistics list 36,731 sexual offences, including rape, assault and the murder of 2,930 women - an increase of 11 percent from the 2,639 murders of women recorded in the 2016/17 financial year. Moreover, the Crime Against Women in South Africa Report released by Statistics South Africa shows that femicide is five times higher in the country than the global average.

"We cannot conceive of celebrating Human Rights Day when women do not have freewill of their own bodies".

GBV also carries a high economic cost. In 2012/2013, the accounting firm, KPMG, estimated that GBV costs South Africa between R28.4 billion and R42.4 billion per year – or between 0.9% and 1.3% of GDP. As such, GBV is both a human rights and public health issue, as it has an impact on families and communities both in the short and long term.

Access to SRH for young women and girls also remains a challenge in South Africa despite the presence of enabling laws and policies. In this regard, there are many unspoken stories and narratives surrounding cultural practices and SRH. For example, virginity testing, a practice that ensures the hymen is intact, is a cultural practice that clearly institutes others’ control over young womens’ sexuality. Whilst virginity testing is a practice ritualised in public life and is now the subject of many studies and debates, there have been many other localised spectacles and practices that often neglect women’s ownership of their own bodies.

Bongekile Msibi was among 48 women whose body rights were violated when she was sterilised without her consent. Although the Sterilisation Act is clear that using force, or any other type of coercion during sterilisations is prohibited and considered a violation of human rights, the Commission for Gender Equality has found some 48 cases of women who were forced into the procedure as a result of pressure, distress or a lack of information. As such, their right to dignity, bodily integrity and freedom and security over their own bodies were violated by health care professionals.

Such dominance of patriarchal structures offers academics, researchers, activists, and society an opportunity to interrogate and deconstruct South Africa’s 26 year old democracy for subtly upholding discriminatory practices that shape and violate women’s reproductive and sexual rights, irrespective of age, socio-economic status, geographical location and traditional or religious background.

We as women and human beings, have a right to control our own bodies. We cannot conceive of celebrating Human Rights Day when women do not have autonomy and freewill of their own bodies. An end needs to be put to the control of women’s bodies from anyone except themselves, whether that be through abortion, sexual assault, non-consensual genital mutilation or any other form of control.

Everyone has a right to bodily autonomy.

(Main image: Protesters hold signs and shout slogans as they take part in a march against gender based violence and in solidarity with women who have been subject to violence and in memory of those who have been killed, at the North Beach in Durban on 7 September 2019 - Rajesh Jantilal/AFP via Getty Images)

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.