Zainab was only 11 years old when she became the fourth wife of a 42-year-old cobbler in her community. She is from Marki, a village in Northern Nigeria where girls are married off at the age of 12 to preserve their purity. Her parents did not consider educating a girl child a worthy venture. Therefore, she was never sent to school. Her father said girls didn’t need to go to school because they wouldn’t use the knowledge. So, growing up, while her brothers went to school, being the only girl in her family, she hawked goods and waited for marriage.
Zainab had always dreamt of becoming a nurse. However, due to her parents’ stance on education, she could not discuss this desire with anyone. Instead, she was compelled to marry the cobbler her parents chose because they believed he would make a good husband. Unfortunately, that was not the case and for four years, Zainab endured rape and torture from her husband. Each time she complained to her mother, she would be told, ‘’Any woman who disobeys her husband will end up in hellfire’’.
The trauma she suffered affected her mental health and Zainab soon became listless and withdrawn, doing only what was required of her. Fortunately, her story did not end badly. After having a baby, she fled her husband’s house and moved in with her aunt in a new city and started schooling. She is now a pharmacist and a baker, running her own business.
Zainab’s experience is not an isolated one. There are many examples of young women and girls all over Nigeria who have been deprived of the right to their bodies, social amenities and life, as well as access to education and healthcare, solely because of their gender. The case of the Becheve girls, in Obanliku, Cross River State, who were sold into marriage in exchange for goats, food items, and in settlement of their parents’ debt, is another sad example.
Lack of bodily autonomy is one of the many factors that contribute to gender inequality. Bodily autonomy means the power and agency women and girls have, to make choices over their bodies without violence or coercion. This includes when, whether or with whom to have sex or to become pregnant. It also means the freedom to access healthcare. The absence of this agency forces women to relinquish control over sexual and reproductive choices which often leads to disempowerment and diminished control in other areas of life.
The State of the World Population (SWOP) Report, an annual publication of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) highlights emerging issues in Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). The theme for the 2021 report which was launched in April is “My Body is My Own: Claiming the Right to Autonomy and Self-Determination’’. The report showed that nearly half the women from 57 developing countries do not have the right to decide what happens to their bodies. That is, only 55% of women and girls can make their own decisions in all 3 dimensions of bodily autonomy — accessing health care, use of contraception and sex.
When women have autonomy over their bodies, they have the power to make choices without people deciding for them and without fear of violence. However, when the right to make informed decisions about their lives has been denied, either by violence, norms, practices or laws, it results in negative consequences which can be compounded by poverty. This affects their opportunities to access education and equitable healthcare, attain financial independence and develop personal ambitions, interests, and talents.
How can bodily autonomy be realised?
Many people do not realise that bodily autonomy is a right everyone deserves. Understanding it gives people the ability to stand up for their rights in society. To improve the lives of women and girls in Nigeria and globally, we must ensure they have full autonomy over their bodies. The UNFPA bodily SWOP report highlighted the following as ways to increase awareness about bodily autonomy:
First, women with more education are more likely to make their own decisions about contraception and healthcare, and to be able to say no to sex. Comprehensive sexuality education — meaning age-appropriate, accurate information about one’s reproductive health and rights — is also crucial. It helps prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and equips individuals to advocate for themselves.
Second, health providers have a critical role to play in upholding and affirming the bodily autonomy of those seeking information and care. Health workers must inform patients of their rights. They must get informed consent from patients before any bodily examination. Medical guidelines, trainings on legal requirements, and specific gender-sensitivity trainings can help healthcare providers actively support the bodily autonomy of patients.
Third, social norms must also become more gender equitable. Improving women’s opportunities for livelihoods and leadership roles in their community and beyond can increase their power to make decisions within households and about their bodies.
Lastly, laws can have a significant impact on women’s rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health. They must be aligned with globally agreed human rights principles and commitments and reviewed for gender responsiveness. The judiciary and police must also be aware of these laws and principles.
Gender inequality is perhaps the most widespread hindrance to bodily autonomy and achieving bodily autonomy depends on achieving gender equality. Sustainable Development Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls thus, ensuring that women and men enjoy the same opportunities, rights and obligations in all spheres of life. Only when women have control over their bodies can they benefit from rights and opportunities in all other areas of their lives, whether that means going to school, caring for their family, starting a business, or leading a country.