Our bodies as battlegrounds

From Kyrgyzstan to Brazil and Sri Lanka, young feminists are trying to shift the debate over sexual and reproductive rights away from a focus on population control and the family unit, to the right of women to have bodily autonomy.

Marisa Viana Ruby Johnson
6 March 2015
People in a street

Emerging leaders Forum Alumni participating in One Billion Rising, Fiji. Photo: Emerging Leaders Forum Alumni As young women, we are sexualized in the media, harassed on the street as sexual objects, and married as girls before we may even know what sex is. Our life experiences are defined by sexuality, and yet the right to make decisions about our own bodies, to experience pleasure, to discover our sexual preferences remains taboo and even criminal. Sexual and reproductive health and rights policies that affect us have long been developed and defined by others, with minimal involvement of young women and girls. To change this, young feminist activists are forging solutions at the local, national, regional and international levels, reclaiming their sexuality, demanding control over their own bodies and their rights.

Over the last twenty years we have seen progress in women’s sexual and reproductive rights through agreements around the International Conference on Population and Development and its review conferences, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and important regional agreements in Africa, Asia,  and Latin America. More governments from the global south are speaking out in favour of our rights to decide if, when and with whom we have children. This is a direct result of the hard work of feminists and the womens movement from all ages and countries pushing for a policy shift, from population control to recognizing women’s bodily autonomy.

Despite these advances sexual and reproductive rights continue to be the deal breaker in national, regional and global policy spaces. This is in part due to challenges posed by ultra-conservative and fundamentalists groups which use the discourse of culture and tradition to scapegoat the fulfillment of human rights, in particular of sexual and reproductive health and rights. This is true when reproductive rights are reduced only to mean abortion and sexual rights only to mean homosexuality, when in reality they encompass a wide range of integrated rights and issues. The reductionist approach is a tactic that conservative governments and organized groups have taken to undermine advances in women’s human rights.

Accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHRs) is still not a reality for many young women. From limited access to contraception, comprehensive sexuality education, to unsafe abortion and criminalization, the challenges are immense. 800 women a day died from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth in 2010, and more than 8 million young women aged 15-24 in developing countries experienced unsafe abortions in 2008.

Responses of young feminists

Woman stencilling outside wall

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ Stencilling in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ


In Kyrgyzstan there are currently no standards or national policy for sexuality education for adolescents and youth. Recently, a Bill "Reproductive Rights and Guarantees of their Implementation" was proposed. In the first reading the new Bill was supported by the majority of MPs, but during the second reading some MPs criticized the proposed changes and argued that the legislation would destroy the family and traditional values. The bill was not passed. The discourse on the sanctity of the family is often used by conservative groups and policy makers to negate that diverse form of family exists.

Young feminists have taken a leading role in advocacy around legislative changes. Sadat, a member of the Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ, explains; “Kyrgyzstani young feminist activists are pushing for the passage of new legislation on sexual and reproductive health rights and are at the forefront of organizing and mobilizing youth activists and allies throughout the country for direct actions in its defense. Due to age discrimination against youth, we are often silenced in decision-making processes and not taken seriously. We urge everyone to acknowledge that we are experts on our own lives and build an open and equal inter-generational dialogue.”


Brazil is officially a secular state, but fundamentalisms by the Catholic and evangelical churches exert significant cultural and political influence in all spheres of political and social life. These groups, which are becoming highly organized and influential, have blocked legislative efforts to expand abortion access, and expand and implement sexuality education. 

Women with banner

Protest on right to abortion in Brazil. Photo: Leticia Alves Maione

 As young feminist activist Leticia Alves Maione from Brazil explains, “Religious groups in Congress are organized politically and economically, with collaboration between churches and businesses. Their tentacles also reach the media, occupying a large space in television and radio programming, and with their own religious channels. Among the 34 proposed bills currently being processed, 31 are serious legislative setbacks for women's rights. These include: the "abortion hotline" and the "support houses" seeking to coerce women in their decisions when they are victims of rape and could access legal abortion; the end of the morning after pill; the transformation of abortion into a heinous crime and as a crime against life.”

Two recents cases further demonstrate the context in which young feminists in Brazil are working.  The suspension by the government of a program against homophobia in schools after religious groups protested in 2011. The School Without Homophobia Kit included publications and videos developed by human rights institutions and LGBT activists with the support of the Ministry of Education and UN agencies in response to the discrimination and violence LGBT youth face. In 2013, the Ministry of Health also censored a collection of comics (HQ) produced in 2010, which contained information on sexual orientation, discrimination, adolescent pregnancy, and gender equality. Without these supplemental programs which would expand the Prevention and Education in School Program  the country has little left by way of sexuality education that is grounded in human rights and gender justice.

Ivens Reyner Co-Founder of Coletivo Mangueiras, a young feminist collective, sees this new wave of fundamentalisms as an opportunity, “this has forced us to do something, to go to the streets, to organize ourselves in more strategic ways. We believe that the conservative wave that has risen in Brazil has made us want to respond in a stronger and more reactive way.”

Sri Lanka

Young women in Sri Lanka do not have the power to make decisions concerning their own bodies - especially in relation to abortion, marital rape and contraceptive usage. Sarah Soysa, a sexual and reproductive rights activist, says, “there are more than 40,000 reported teenage pregnancies every year in Sri Lanka and a reported number of 700 abortions every day. Sri Lanka has adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, ratified CEDAW and adopted a comprehensive Women’s Charter in 1993 framed on the principles of enshrined in CEDAW. Yet, real change still need to happen at the national level. Young people hardly participate in these reviews as a result of low resources,  and also because young people are not recognized as important stakeholders.”

Woman holding sign

Sarah SRHR Selfie. Photo: Sarah Soysa

Sarah received a grant from International Women’s Health Coalition to conduct local level Beijing +20 advocacy work. In February 2015 she and a group of other young people held the first ever youth review on SRHR and gender equality in Sri Lanka, ahead of this month's UN Commission on the Status of Women 59 in New York. They trained 27 young leaders from 18 different organisations and networks, and produced recommendations to the government urging them to strengthen and implement existing adolescent health strategy and national youth policy, and approve the Health of Young Persons’ Policy. The establishment of the Youth Advocacy Network Sri Lanka was formed following the review.

Women’s human rights groups, young feminists activists and governments alike must take this opportunity to repoliticize the debate and call for greater accountability and full implementation of past and future agreements on SRHRs. This requires commitment and political will to ensure young women and girls can exercise autonomy over their own bodies, and adequate financing so that they access the SRHR services they need and want. Young feminists can help re-conceptualize how we understand sexual and reproductive health and rights, moving from reproduction to sexuality, away from reductionist approaches, from a focus on population control and the family unit, to liberty of women and girls to claim their bodily autonomy.

Next week the 59th session of the UN Comission on the Status of Women opens in New York - a moment where thousands of women's rights activists gather from all corners of the world. Both FRIDA and Resurj will be there, working with the Women’s Rights Caucus and partners to advocate for a strong declaration that meets, and exceeds, the principles set out in the Beijing declaration. We will also be supporting young feminists, amplyfing their voices and experiences of the CSW via social media, aiming to connect them in NYC and beyond. Among numerous events, we will hold panel discussion on young feminist activists and SRHR, where young women from Sri Lanka, Brazil, and Kyrgyzstan will share their experiences.




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