Reclaiming our Bodies
A couple of weeks ago, I was sent by work to a workshop on Female Genital Mutilation, and more precisely on the necessary involvment of men in the eradication of FGM. Even though the whole conference was more focused on Africa, It lead me to think about sexual and reproductive health and rights of Middle Eastern Women, and more precisely, on how a body is never really a woman’s own in our region. If you come from a very religious background, then your body is considered to be God’s property. It can also be your family’s, with you ending being the honour-bearer of the whole clan. Whoever it might be, it is often considered prespoterous to claim it as your own, with everything that it implies, i.e, having the right to monitor and control it as you please. I was also strongly reminded of an article I read in a higly scientific magasine (I think it might have been Prestige or something) that featured a whole piece on the vaccine against cervical cancer (that can stem from the HPV, papillomavirus, a highly common sexually transmitted virus). Some mothers were against their daughters being vaccinated: It might encourage our daughters to start having sex, they claimed.
As a reminder, a woman dies of cervical cancer approximately every 2 minutes worldwide.
Makes you put the whole daughter-having-sex into perspective eh?
Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) cover very important areas of a woman’s life, and are defined as follows :
-Sexual health: Includes healthy sexual development, equitable and responsible relationships and sexual fulfilment, freedom from illness, disease, disability, violence and other harmful practices related to sexuality.
-Sexual rights: the rights of all people to decide freely and responsibly on all aspects of their sexuality, including protecting and promoting their sexual health, be free from discrimination, coercion or violence in their sexual lives and in all sexual decisions, expect and demand equality, full consent, mutual respect and shared responsibility in sexual relationships. We also have the right to say ‘no’ to sex if we do not want it.
Reproductive health: The complete physical, mental and social well-being in all matters related to the reproductive system including a satisfying and safe sex life, capacity to have children and, freedom to decide if, when and how often to do so.
Reproductive rights: The rights of couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children, to have the information, education and means to do so, attain the highest standards of sexual and reproductive health and, make decisions about reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.
In our region, sexual and reproductive rights are often not respected (to say the least). As women, we do not often have the right to say “no” to sex to our husband, because the man’s will and pleasure are non negotiable and because we’re bound to honour our marital commitments. Young girls in Egypt and Yemen are ferried off to marry older men without anyone asking them their opinion. Female Genital Mutilation still happen in some parts of the Middle East, as honour killings against women who are believed to have had what is considered to be unlawful sexual relationships. Few couples have access to the necessary information needed to plan a family as they please, women do not often dare to go on the pill for fear of stigma. Sexual minorities can’t enjoy a satisfying and safe sex life for fear of being discriminated against, when it’s not for fear of being put in prison and beaten up, or even killed in countries where homosexuality is still considered as a crime (which would amount to the majority of the Arab countries).
And we still could go on and on.
One of the many reasons as to why these issues are not addressed and tackled as they should be is the extreme sensitivity surrounding them. Sex is still very taboo in our societies, and it is not because half naked women are spilled unto many Beirut billboards that sex has become an open issue that people can freely talk about. Mentalities remain the main barrier to the full respect of sexual and reproductive health and rights: not only can’t young women talk about these issues without being considered as “sluts”, but they can’t have free access to education and health care for fear of being recognised by someone, for fear of stigma or even out of shame. As young Arab women, could you imagine going to your next door chemist’s and ask for the pill? Walaw! But the people at the chemist’s know your cousin (when they’re not your cousins themselves), they might start blabbing away, it might reach your father’s ears!
The Arab obsession with a woman’s virginity, the obsession with a woman’s, and hence a family’s honour, lead to cruel practices such as female genital mutilation or early marriages. Most of the times, families do really think they are acting out of love for their daughters, for if they are not circumcised or married early, people in the community will start talking about them and questioning their virginity. The young woman will thus run the risk of never finding a husband, which is still seen in many communities in the Middle East as one of the worst thing that could happen to a woman. However, it doesn’t take extreme measures such as FGM or early marriage to demonstrate the “virginity obsession” that prevails in the MENA region: a close friend of mine told me how her gynaecologist (a woman) had sneered at her bellybutton piercing and asked my flabbergasted friend if she wanted a “virginity certificate”. No more needs to be said I think. Another reason impeding the full enjoyment of SRHR is the lack of education and information given to young girls. As they grow older, they start engaging in hushed, hidden sexual relationships, not knowing key elements to their own health, leading to risky behaviours like unprotected sex. This situation renders them more vulnerable to HIV and other STDs infection and unwanted pregnancies.
Governmental policies are not helping either. Indeed, for example, emergency contraception is available in Algeria and Lebanon upon prescription, and in Tunisia and Turkey without prescription, and not recognised or forbidden in other countries. 80% of Middle Eastern women live in countries where laws restrict abortion, meaning that an abortion will only be performed if the pregnancy affects the life of the mother and/or the child, leaving pregnant women who do not fall into this category to endury risky and health threatening procedures.
The much-needed improvement of the situation needs to be done in a smart and sensivitive way : there is no point in alienating societies after the first couple of words uttered, for no one will ever listen to us again. So the outloud readings of the Vagina Monologues might have to wait a bit then. In order to address the issue in the best way possible, a rights-based approach might be the most comprehensive method. The temptation to regard SRHR as a purely medical topic might leave out huge proportions of the population for whom the terms might not be accessible, and might miss out the point that SRHR are human rights. Indeed, they cover core human rights such as the right to privacy, the right to health, the right not to be discriminated against, the right not to go through inhuman and degrading treatments etc…
The language of the awareness raising campaigns needs to be non threatening and culturally sensitive, while getting the message across. All media would need to be used, especially popular ones such as TV and the radio.
The educative part of the programmes should reach each component of the societies, men and women, young girls and boys, to give them the keys to their own health and thus be able to make informed choices regarding family planning and sexual life.
Anti stigma and discrimination campaigns should also take place within societies, with a special emphasis given on training medical and para medical staff, so young people know they have a safe space to turn to.
In the MENA region, given the weak state of democracy, it would be important that change is initiated both from the people and then to the government, but also from Ministries to reach out to communities afterwards. Partnerships between NGOs and civil society and health governments officials might be just the right combination.
People need to understand that giving education and raising awareness on sexual and reproductive health and rights is simply not going to change the core values of the society they cherish, nor it is going to encourage young people to engage in early sexual activities. It is only going to guarantee that women and men make informed choices, stay healthy, and give a sense of control to women on what is rightly theirs: their very own body.