Time for women to reclaim their bodies: SheDecides movement fights for sexual rights

SheDecides works to promote, provide, protect and enhance the fundamental rights of every girl and woman. Source: szefei/Shutterstock

AS a female, “if we can’t achieve autonomy of our bodies, we cannot achieve autonomy over our lives.”

These are the words of Sadia Rahman, and she would know. As an outreach sexual health worker in Bangladesh, she understands the importance of contraception and a girl’s right to effective family planning.

Sadia educates young girls on sexual health and helps them to access safe abortion clinics in a country in which a stigma is still very much attached.

It is the challenging work of people like Sadia, those on the front lines of the fight for gender equality, that make such a difference in the lives of young girls and that is so crucial to the SheDecides movement.

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The commitment to promote, provide, protect and enhance the fundamental rights of every girl and woman is the keystone of the SheDecides movement, and was formulated in Brussels back in 2017. But it was celebrated and reaffirmed today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia as women from all over Asia-Pacific came together to shine a light on the fantastic work being done, and the uphill battle still yet to fight in the crusade for a woman’s right to control her own sexual and reproductive health.

Sivananthi speaks at the SheDecides anniversary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 2, 2018. Source: ARROW

“Every girl and every woman has the right to choose what she does with her body,” said Sivananthi Thanenthiran, host of Friday’s event and Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW) Executive Director.

“Unfortunately, millions of girls around the world and in our region are unable to do so.”

“Sexual and reproductive rights are integral to individual autonomy, to freely decide on matters of sexuality and reproduction, to have the right to consent and bodily integrity,” she added.

The movement began as an immediate response to US President Donald Trump’s reinstatement of the Global Gag Rule, a policy that restricts US funding to all international, regional and local non- governmental organisations and coalitions that conduct, or even so much as discuss, abortions as a feature in family planning.

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Historically, it has had devastating effects on women, girls and their communities around the world. According to the SheDecides movement, research shows that the policy prevents women and girls from accessing contraception and safe abortion that they are legally entitled to in their countries, as well as hampers HIV prevention efforts, and obstructs women’s ability to access health care through both the closure of underfunded clinics and fuelling a reluctance to talk out against antiquated laws.

Speakers at the SheDecides anniversary forum highlighted the work still left to be done throughout the region. While there are success stories, such as the introduction of a fatwa in Muslim-majority Maldives allowing abortion in a number of circumstances, many also highlighted the vast array of challenges that vulnerable people still face in a region of the world that prides itself as being the next wave of development.

Panel discussion at the SheDecides anniversary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, March 2, 2018. Source: ARROW

Young Indonesian SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression) rights activist, Fika Febriana detailed the danger she faces, especially given the proposed changes to Indonesia’s criminal code which would criminalise same-sex relations, as well as impose new restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly.

“Me and my friends will have a room waiting for us in jail,” she said; a punishment she could face  just for educating people about contraception.

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Restrictions such as these are just one of the reasons the SheDecides movement continues to be so vital in Asia-Pacific. Young girls seeking sexual education, access to contraceptives or life saving abortions are often still faced with stigma and shame, forcing them into unsafe situations.

“Unsafe abortion is estimated to have caused 13 percent of all maternal deaths in South East Asia,” Sivananthi said, stressing the need to keep up the momentum with movements like SheDecides.

According to the United Nations, a staggering 2.3 million women in the region are hospitalised annually for treatment of complications from unsafe abortion. The shortfalls of sexual education are also pervasive, with 12.8 million adolescent girls worldwide have an unmet need for family planning, about half of whom live in the Asia-Pacific region.

Change is needed, says Sivananthi, as girls taking control of their sexual and reproductive rights “is to the benefit of all of us.”

“We need to come together, to stand up and speak out to say, Yes! She Decides.”

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