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Devastating impact of gender inequality highlighted in new report

Less than 50 per cent of women have the power to make their own decisions about their bodies, including whether to have sex with their partners, use contraception or seek health care, according to the new United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2021 flagship State of World Population report.

For the first time, a United Nations report focuses on bodily autonomy, which is the power and agency to make choices about your body, without fear of violence or having someone else decide for you.

My body is my own: claiming the right to autonomy and self-determination, UNFPA’s 2021 State of World Population report, outlines the significant implications of gender inequality, beyond the profound harms to individual women and girls.

Presenting the report, Ms Jacqueline Mahon, UNFPA Country Representative for Tanzania, said: “To look at bodily autonomy and imagine what it could and should mean is to see a vastly different future for human beings. We can realise who we are fully. We do not have to shrink to fit choices that are not ‘ours’, to be in anyway ‘less than’. When women and girls can make the most fundamental choices about their bodies, they not only gain in terms of autonomy, but also through advances in health and education, income and safety. These add up to a world of greater justice and human wellbeing, which benefits us all. Real, sustained progress largely depends on uprooting gender inequality and all forms of discrimination and transforming the social and economic structures that maintain them.”

Launching the report, Minister Colm Brophy, Minister of State for Overseas Development Aid and Diaspora, said: “The ‘My Body is My Own’ report finds that only 55 per cent of women worldwide have the power to make decisions about their own healthcare, contraception, and engagement in sexual intercourse. Ireland is proud to work with partners like UNFPA to empower women to make decisions about their bodies and to fulfil their full potential, by improving access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, addressing sexual and gender-based violence and promoting girls’ education.”

The report features an interview with Dr Caitríona Henchion, Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) Medical Director. Commenting on reproductive healthcare during the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Henchion said: “Because we introduced abortion care in Ireland in 2019, we were able to respect the autonomy of women whose pregnancies became a crisis because of lost jobs or personal situations that totally changed during the pandemic. But women whose pregnancies did not meet the criteria for eligibility under the 2018 Act saw their autonomy denied.”

Speaking at the launch event, Mr Niall Behan, CEO of the IFPA, said: “Reproductive autonomy and choice are at the heart of UNFPA’s work—and the work of the IFPA. We’ve made great progress in Ireland. But we cannot be complacent. Our goal is the fulfilment of the right to the highest attainment standard of reproductive health and we still have work to do to get there.”

Ms Michelle Winthrop, Irish Aid Policy Director said: “The State of World Population report 2021, focused on bodily autonomy comes at a critically important time. Healthcare systems are under pressure, and women’s rights are threatened like never before as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Gender remains a major priority of ours, as outlined in A Better World, Ireland’s international development policy. I look forward to this discussion, as an opportunity to share some of Irish Aid’s lessons in this area and learn about what more we can do to secure women’s rights.”

Senator Annie Hoey, co-Chair of the All Party Oireachtas Interest Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights chaired the launch event.

Senator Hoey commented:“A key theme in this report is ‘the power to say yes and the right to say no’. Women and girls who have access to education are more likely to know their power to say no to sex, make confident decisions on contraception and health care, and are less likely to be subjected to sexual violence. The importance of comprehensive sexuality education, including here in Ireland, cannot be understated”.

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