No Right to Bodily Autonomy Without Social Justice and Liberation

The article asserts that bodily autonomy cannot be fully realized without addressing systemic issues like gender discrimination, capitalism, and colonialism. It emphasizes that bodily autonomy is a fundamental human right intertwined with broader social, economic, and cultural rights, and advocates for a justice framework that tackles the root causes of oppression to achieve true liberation.

The full realization of the right to bodily autonomy can’t be achieved without breaking from the established power dynamics of gender-based discrimination, capitalism and colonialism, among other systems of oppression. The ability to exercise self-determination over one’s body is the first act of liberation and cannot be separated from liberation of the land and from the exploitation of neo-liberal policies.

The Right to Bodily Autonomy is a Human Right

The right to bodily autonomy, despite current reactionary discourse labelling it as a ‘new right’, is enshrined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action of 1995, and has been integral to international human rights treaties since their inceptions, captured in the principles of privacy and physical integrity.

Since then, this right has been reaffirmed in various politically negotiated documents, in multilateral spaces such as at the Human Rights Council, the United Nations General Assembly and the Commission on the Status of Women, among others and in the work of international lawyers and experts tasked with interpreting human rights standards.

The right to bodily autonomy is crucial to the realization of the right to non-discrimination. Acts of violence, coercion, lack of respect for consent, denial of sexual and reproductive health information and service, and virginity testing all represent violations of this right and remain pervasive around the world and notably in South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA). There is recognition within international human rights law that the right to bodily autonomy is deeply linked to a broader set of rights, including social, economic and cultural rights.

Towards a Liberatory Approach to Reproductive Justice

Western mainstream feminism has fixated on the right to bodily autonomy to the point of divorcing it from a wider set of rights, and even more crucially, of questions linked to the right to bodily autonomy amidst capitalism and colonialism. The ‘My Body My Choice’ motto, while effective to some extent, is only one piece of what should be a wider interrogation of how the full realization of the right to bodily autonomy is shaped by intersectional discrimination, where systems of oppression interact and impact marginalized groups whose status is often unrecognized by any particular legislative framework. There is therefore a need to move on from a rights framework towards a justice framework, which would not only look at legislative frameworks but also at building healthy communities and improving material conditions.

In many countries in the SWANA region, legislative frameworks overwhelmingly fall short of compliance with international human rights standards. In these contexts, women, girls, and persons of diverse sexual orientations, gender identities and sex characteristics not only have to face patriarchal, sexist, transphobic and homophobic social norms – often translated into formal laws and practices - but also encounter significant economic and physical barriers to accessing the full range of sexual and reproductive health information and services they need.  This holds more significantly for people facing intersectional discrimination such as migrant and domestic workers who face institutionalized racism and xenophobia and for persons with disabilities facing ableism and lack of appropriate care and meaningful participation.

This manifests for instance, in the de-prioritization of sexual and reproductive rights within health budgets and humanitarian response programs. In a region heavily affected by colonialism, wars, political repression, conflicts and environmental emergencies, this exacerbates already deeply entrenched marginalization along lines of gender and equality. This de-prioritization is also the product of gender-based discrimination, whereby issues that are perceived as ‘women’s concerns’ are often disregarded. Maternal health services, which correspond with socially accepted and morally validated gender roles, receive greater attention and resources than other services, such as access to abortion and contraception and sexual health services.

This lack of centering bodily autonomy in public policy is coupled and exacerbated by the neo-liberal impetus, often times motivated by international institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, to implement austerity measures that primarily impact the already fragilized public health and education systems and is leading to an ever increasing erosion of public health systems and to  higher rates of privatization of the health sector in countries like Lebanon and Jordan. These trends are widening health inequalities and creating two-tier health systems, where only affluent people can have access to high quality care, information and services.

Colonialism and Bodily Autonomy

Compounding the adverse impacts of gender-based discrimination, capitalism, and neo-liberalism, colonial powers like Israel have used the right to bodily autonomy to justify ethnic cleansing, genocide and other oppressive ends. Since the beginning of its occupation of Palestine, Israel has perpetrated reproductive rights violations against Palestinian women. Such violations have been recognized by the International Court of Justice as contributing to the crime of genocide, in the context of the ongoing genocide in Gaza. Israel has also used pinkwashing – purporting in respect for the bodily autonomy of LGBTIQ+ individuals – in order to cover up its violations against queer Palestinians, whom they have threatened to expose to their families and communities unless they adhere to their demands.

It is also noteworthy that lack of realization of bodily autonomy in the SWANA region is a direct result of global financial institutions’ criteria for loans, as well as foreign donors’ prioritization of sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTIQ+ issues. This Western focus on rights as individual entitlement to serve as a basis for litigation tends to neglect initiatives geared towards reproductive justice, which address the social and other determinants of health and the material conditions that make the realization of the right to bodily autonomy possible. This neglect of socio-economic rights and of political economy issues such as debt relief, universal health coverage and access to medicines, and of initiatives aimed at questioning the role of corporations in human rights violations or on demilitarization of societies prevent the application of a reproductive justice framework. For instance, the increased funding on child, early and forced marriage in Lebanon in the wake of the war in Syria led to several campaigns targeting this practice without meaningfully addressing its root causes or supporting initiatives that would guarantee non-recurrence.

This neo-liberal stance exacerbates pre-existing gender-based discrimination and makes the indigenous societal and political fabric of SWANA countries even more permeable to the growing reactionary and conservative far-right discourse peddled by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches and by mostly North American Evangelical organizations, whose main entry point is to pit the economic well-being of “the family’’ – or at least their narrow fixation on the nuclear family - against the right to bodily autonomy. This translates into any effort to progress the right to bodily autonomy being diverted by these conservative actors and replaced by conversations on socio-economic conditions of ‘the family’. This instrumentalization would be harder to realize if the political economy aspect of the right to bodily autonomy was taken into account.

Addressing bodily autonomy as an individual right tends to ignore the key obstacles to the realization of this right. By erecting it as a marker for progressiveness and a conditionality for provision of aid, Western powers and institutions feed into the discourse about sexual and reproductive rights as a western import (often instrumentalized by oppressive SWANA regimes). Indigenous activists working on these issues are then scapegoated as agents of the West, compounding the existing scrutiny they face and limitations to their work. The lack of a principled position in accordance with international law of Western powers on the question of the liberation of Palestine, and their glaring double standard in how they prioritize SRHR domestically and in their foreign policy, while not addressing the glaring sexual and reproductive rights violations perpetrated by Israel in Palestine, also reinforces this dynamic.

Bodily autonomy is about more than individual rights. It requires more systemic change involving more fundamental legislative processes – at least, until structural systems of oppression are challenged and broken away with and new dynamics put in place.

Paola Salwan Daher is a feminist activist, an international jurist and a Senior International Fellow at the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship. She has 15 years of experience working in women's and girls' rights, gender equality and sexual and reproductive rights. Her areas of expertise also include advocacy in multilateral spaces, and the interlinkages between international human rights and humanitarian law.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


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