The Young Feminists Movement Trust (Y-Fem) views bodily autonomy and integrity as rights that all people are entitled to. It is through one’s bodily autonomy that one can have the power to say “no” that each person should be able to make decisions about their own body. Through bodily integrity, one’s personhood is secured, no one has the right to unlawfully cause physical harm and interfere with a person’s existence, and beyond this, the extent to which the law permits such interference should be.
This view that Y-Fem has, is one that I too hold dearly. While there is education around this subject, with notions of “no means no” and general knowledge about puberty at the forefront of these, there is still a gap regarding knowledge of the extent to which one’s body truly belongs to oneself. This gap is clear through the tremendous amount of people whose abuse has been maintained or archived as one of the many family secrets, as well as in instances where a person’s dressing is said to communicate what they are asking for or justify why they were subject to violence.
Y-Fem through its work recognizes that experiencing violence is something that has become a norm and whenever there are instances of robberies, theft and intimate partner violence, it is easy for each instance to be minimised into a statistic or for people to depersonalise such crimes and treat them as regular conversational topics. It is through my engagement with Y-Fem that these gaps became clearer to me. I am from a Christian background with pentecostal and anglican roots, my views on a lot of feminist subjects had largely been shaped by that. It was easy for me to look at someone’s gender identity or sexual orientation, a core part of their existence and conclude that it was a sin, or to look at sexuality as a measure of ‘purity’ and ‘goodness.’ I’m certain that this experience and worldview is not unique and that many wholeheartedly hold these views.
Working with Y-Fem has since taught me that one’s bodily autonomy and integrity as well as sexual reproductive health rights are not limited to biological functioning. That there are socio-economic and political aspects to this, it is not enough to talk about anatomical functioning or to simply teach, “say no” and abstinence doctrines.
It is these ideals that make one reason that “because she is wearing this…then her no means yes..” that we must challenge. No has always meant no, it has never meant anything else. Ideologies and perspectives that say it might mean anything else, or that it is situationally irrelevant to the extent of allowing for unlawful practices, are what must be challenged for the protection of autonomy and integrity.
The trouble with the logic of completely placing responsibility to avoid harm on the individual, that it is their place to say no and their duty to abstain, is that it takes responsibility away from service providers who are supposed to ensure that the society caters to these needs and from the offenders who must be held accountable for their behaviour.
To paraphrase author Zoe Samudzi, the effect of these modes of reasoning is that they make people at risk, responsible for mitigating that risk. The African feminist approach to protecting bodily autonomy and integrity are to create programmes that encourage young women and girls to take agency in the mitigation of this while actively keeping these official bodies accountable through a focus on strengthening the individual capacity to advocate for, and protect one’s voice, body and money, the goal to create a sustainable and safe community may be achievable.
Vimbainashe C Makanza
Advocacy Officer (Y-Fem)