The past one year has forced almost 8 billion people indoors. Everyone has had to adapt to the changed times and carry on with their routine, albeit a little differently. Many of us have spent hours reading news online during the ongoing pandemic. News often carries a very negative flood of information and sadly, that has not changed much during these extraordinary circumstances either. Assault, theft, murder, robbery, rape and abduction are all common features in the news. It is also rampant with reports of abuse, not only limited to mental and physical abuse, but also emotional and sexual abuse. It doesn’t take extraordinary intelligence to know that abuse literally stems from the lack of respect for another person’s integrity, whether physical or mental. This may be fueled by the abuser’s own violent upbringing. Upbringing includes seeing and incorporating the behaviors exhibited by the society as a whole. This makes it even more imperative to know about bodily autonomy, and the reasons and consequences of not having this discussion at early impressionable ages.
Bodily autonomy essentially is the freedom to govern one’s own body. This implies that the person in question should have complete autonomy over their bodies and be free of restrictions imposed by the society and the Government, or any such external force. This is especially important for women, non-binary and trans people, because they have been subject to discrimination, suppression and restraint at the hands of privileged men since time immemorial. Taking an example from the West, let us remember that black slave women were frequently made to carry white men’s babies to term, against their own will. This is one grave example of historical violation of a person’s bodily autonomy.
The society, although claiming to be ‘respectful and sensitive’, ingrains in the minds of children and adults alike, only a sheer disregard for a person’s bodily integrity from the start. It is not uncommon to see young babies have their ears pierced at tender ages. This activity entails no true logic and is only carried out to comply with societal norms which have unfortunately failed to tweak themselves with changing times. Ear piercing, especially in young girls, is done more to satisfy the society’s expectations than for the girl’s own choice of having her ears pierced for cosmetic reasons. This is one of the many ways in which a person’s bodily autonomy is taken to be non-existent and their bodies are subjected to things at the whims and fancies of everyone but them. It is shocking how even well-educated parents do not consider putting off something as minor as an ear piercing for when the child can decide for themselves and continue to ‘go with the flow’. Thereby iterating society’s unfounded patriarchal norms standing on a foundation of utter ignorance.
If we are to delve deeper into issues of bodily autonomy for women, we can easily find innumerable examples from everyday life as well as the news. For starters, abortion laws around the globe are found to be missing the vital logical element which considers a woman to be a political agent and an adult person instead of a vessel to simply bear children. In countries across the globe, parliaments led and dominated in number by men, are framing and implementing laws pertaining to abortion. The greatest irony is how these ‘lawmakers’ believe they have the ability to make laws for women’s bodies without women’s consideration or consultation. The United States of America, which has been hailed as a ‘superpower’ time and again, has itself acted in complete contradiction to the principles of welfare and liberty as stated in the Preamble to the country’s constitution. In 2019, several states ruled in favour of a blanket ban on abortion. This vote was cast by privileged white, male legislators. This bill takes away a woman’s bodily autonomy by arbitrary amendment of laws in nine states. In the landmark case of Roe vs. Wade, abortion was made legal in 1973 all through the United States. It actually seems like the courts of almost half a century earlier were more progressive and respectful of a woman’s bodily integrity and her choice, than the legislators of the present day. It is regrettable how preference is being given to fetal personhood not female personhood, to determine and decide for the fate of a female’s body; decisions she should have been free to embrace on her own.
In India, The Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971 was amended in late 2020. The latest amendment carried with it a progressive and ‘with the times’ approach. It struck away the notion of the female needing a male guardian’s consent to undergo abortion and also included the scope of contraceptive failure for a reason to abort. The age for fetal abortion was also extended to 24 weeks and the term ‘married woman and her husband’ with ‘any woman and her partner’. It is with immense pride that I say that, now India stands amongst the few nations with liberal abortion laws. The effective implementation of these laws will impart to the society, slowly but surely, that a woman’s bodily autonomy is of paramount importance and no man or anyone else, can dictate terms to a woman regarding her own body. This will be a step towards imbibing respect for boundaries.
When young children and adolescents are taught that they have supreme rights over their bodies, with the principle that this rule is applicable solely to their bodies, these youngsters grow up to love and respect themselves, while uplifting, loving and respecting others as well. Only when we begin sensitization at the grassroot level, will we be able to reduce and eventually put an end to abuse. Globally, more than 1 in 6 men and 1 in 3 women report being victims of abuse. 30% of all the abused turn out to be abusers themselves. This vicious cycle must be brought to an end. Punishing abusers is not the answer. The society must renounce archaic beliefs and customs followed in blind faith and progress onto newer, modified customs which comply with the demands of a modern inclusive society and are appropriate for the twenty first century. The society needs to stop compelling people to modify their bodies or give up their bodily rights on the pretext of validation. There is an urgent need to reinforce the importance of bodily autonomy.
Teaching people that the first God they know, is within themselves and their bodies, may go a long way in establishing the sacredness and sanctity of one’s body. Just as one would never infringe upon a sacred element, there would be little to no infringement upon the person’s own body too. To put it in layman’s terms, this would roughly translate to encouraging bodily autonomy amongst children and the youth and also realigning adults’ viewpoints in a positive, more liberal and growth-conducive manner. This is one of the major moves than can help bring an end to the sad reality of abuse and free the suppressed from the shackles of oppression.
This article has been written by Sakshi Narwal, Ist year