First Lady Jeannette Kagame expressed her thoughts on women’s bodily autonomy during the Women Deliver Pre-Conference “The Power of Choice: Fostering Partnerships to Realize Bodily Autonomy” on July 17 at Kigali Serena Hotel.
The conference was held in collaboration with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). She stated that when women’s bodily autonomy is infringed upon and their health is jeopardized, they lose control over the decisions that affect them the most, which can lead to exploitation.
The First Lady articulated her vision for a compassionate world, where parents can joyfully welcome their daughters into the world without fearing that they will experience harm or suppression based on their gender identity. This ideal world would be devoid of the gender-based obstacles that have historically impeded the progress of women and girls.
“We can only imagine how developed, how inclusive, how evolved the world could be with twice as much harnessed potential. But why should we simply imagine, why should this reasonable target feel like a dream? Is the systemic controlling of women and girls, the governance of women and girls’ bodies and minds truly the fate our world has chosen? Women will not be discouraged by the extent of the work ahead. Equality is our birthright and it can and will be secured,” she said.
The First Lady further noted that women are equally capable and deserving as men to decide their own fate and make valid choices impacting the welfare of their communities.
She said that UNFPA has decided to participate in the effort to restore women’s equal rights to health, bodily autonomy, and well-being. They aim to promote and protect women’s rights to safety and well-being, reduce preventable and unnecessary pain, put an end to maternal deaths and gender-based violence, and eliminate other harmful practices.
She noted that their transformative agenda aligns with Rwanda’s vision of an empowered, dignified, protected population across genders.
The First Lady also thanked the women-led and feminist organisations for the groundwork they engage in every day.
“The rights that we have claimed for all women, with the backing of visionary leaders, are the reason we are here today,” she said.
Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of UNFPA, explained that bodily autonomy is about power and agency, the ability to say unequivocally, “my body is my own.”
She said UNFPA is partnering with young women in particular, demanding that tech companies remove abusive, non-consensual images from their platforms, adding that policymakers must also criminalise the use of such images.
Kanem noted that 44 per cent, nearly half of women, are not able to make their own choices about their reproductive health, the use of contraception, and whether or not to have sex.
UNFPA research also shows that barely half of pregnancies in the world are unintended, and many of those end up in unsafe abortion.
According to Kanem, that is a leading cause of maternal death that the organisation has committed to bringing down, expressing that a lack of choice can be deadly.
She added: “We have to challenge patriarchy at every step, and I expect men to be part of that, pushing back against patriarchy at every step, demanding and defending the body right of everyone. Let us stand united.”
Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of International Development of Canada, shared that in his country, bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health (SRHR) are recognised as non-negotiable parts of their healthcare.
“To do that,” he said, “we need an honest conversation about financing for SRHR, as well as for feminist movements and women’s rights organisations.”
Sajjan further noted that through their 10-year commitment, they earmark $700 million for SRHR, particularly work on the neglected areas of programmes like safe abortion and post-abortion care, sexual and gender-based violence prevention and response, comprehensive sexuality education, among others.