#YoungFem Voices: My body, my decisions – Reproductive rights in the South Pacific

During the AWID Forum, FRIDA will be sharing videos, blogs and reflections from young feminists around the world in our #YoungFem Voices series.

Below Sarah Ashaya Soysa, a FRIDA advisor from the Asia Pacific region and young feminist focusing on gender and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, reflects on the links between economic empowerment and sexual health rights:

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“Getting raped should be treated as an accident that women face daily like falling in the bathroom or burning their hands while cooking.” This is what men in Jaffna, Sri Lanka said when we were there for a training session on the sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) of women and girls.

Shocking? Not really, because it accurately captures the culture we are all living in here in Sri Lanka. For me, it is not only about rape but about many other serious physical, emotional, social and psychological aspects of gender and being a woman. In the last few weeks, I have had the pleasure of meeting and learning from several strong young women who still face difficulties making their reproductive choices. And it has made me think about the links between economic empowerment and reproductive autonomy.

When we look at the issue of women’s fertility, several experts and SRHR advocates have agreed that investing in women and empowering them to exercise their rights will contribute to economic growth and overall development of a country. However my own work in Sri Lanka made me realize that investing in women’s economic rights alone will not make always enable them to exercise other choices, especially those related to their sexual and reproductive health.

Gains in socio-economic fields alone will not result in sexual and reproductive health rights unless they are combined with quality education and other policy changes along with proper implementation, follow-up and financial support.

According to the UN, there are 5 components that helps us measure empowerment– “women’s sense of self- worth, their right to have and to determine choices, their right to have access to opportunities and resources, their right to have the power to control their own lives – both within and outside the home, and their ability to influence the direction of social change to create a more just social and economic order, nationally and internationally”. This clearly shows that women’s empowerment is not limited to decision making in the private sphere but also extends to all aspects of life, including political and civic empowerment, and being able to have an independent voice at the individual, domestic, regional, national and international level.

If we look deeper at how economic empowerment affects women’s autonomy in making reproductive health choices, a certain discrepancy is clear. From my own experience, I have observed how women simply do not have access to information and services that can help them understand the concept of bodily autonomy. They do not have control over their own fertility, as there are restrictions in mobility, decision-making and access to resources constraining them.

Women’s limited power to make decisions in families directly affects health-related decision making in rural as well as urban Sri Lanka and perhaps even the South Asian region as a whole.

Talking about empowerment cannot stop at economic empowerment. Decision making power does not necessarily come from monetary power, especially in the case of women and their sexual and reproductive rights. It is important for all stakeholders to understand that women are dynamic, strong, capable, passionate human beings who are agents of change in our communities. We must all learn to TRUST women to make decisions about their own bodies!

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