Bodily autonomy, the ability for individuals to make choices about their bodies without fear, violence, or coercion, is not afforded to all people equally. Laws and economic and social barriers continue to restrict women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in countries around the world.
Just 55% of women have bodily autonomy, according to data from 57 countries collected by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Having bodily autonomy is measured by their ability to make their own decisions on issues related to health care, contraception, and sexual activity.
Here are five young women from around the world are who fighting to ensure that women have the right to equality, dignity, and respect for private life without discrimination.
1. Lolo Cynthia
Cynthia, from Nigeria, stumbled upon opportunities to work within reproductive and sexual health when she was studying in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2009. While she was on a path toward pursuing medicine, she ultimately decided that she wanted to work to prevent women’s health issues rather than treat them.
Now a Nigerian UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) media ambassador, Cynthia also put together the comprehensive sexuality education toolkit My Body Is Mine to help children understand the importance of bodily autonomy. The toolkit is used by 10 million people worldwide.
Cynthia also uses social media to share sex education content on her YouTube channel, LoloTalks, and shares informational tweets that facilitate discussions about stigmatized topics ranging from sexuality to menstrual hygiene.
Niyel is happy to welcome @Lolo_cy as Advocacy Officer. Lolo comes to Niyel with over 6 years of experience working with adolescents, youth, and women through sexuality education, family planning advocacy, research, community mobilization, and digital media campaigns. pic.twitter.com/KRwnhBclLG— NIYEL (@NiyelCampaigns) January 14, 2021
2. Paxton Smith
When 18-year-old Smith, then the valedictorian of the senior class at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas, Texas, got up to the podium at graduation in June, she ended up giving a different speech than planned.
A couple of weeks before Smith’s graduation, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed new abortion restriction legislation that banned health care providers from performing abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can be as early as six weeks and especially puts impoverished women at risk. Low-income women have the highest rates of unintended pregnancies and do not have the option that wealthier women have to travel out of state to receive abortions, which can have serious health implications. When governments restrict abortions, people still seek the procedure and resort to unsafe abortions, the third-leading cause of maternal deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that 47,000 women die from unsafe abortions every year.
"I am terrified that if my contraceptives fail, I am terrified that if I am raped, then my hopes and aspirations and dreams and efforts for my future will no longer matter,” she said. “I hope that you can feel how gut-wrenching that is. I hope you can feel how dehumanizing it is, to have the autonomy over your own body taken away from you.”
Paxton Smith, Voice of the Future awardee, brought the room to a standstill: “We are rapidly approaching a time in our nation’s history when full freedom is only available to certain citizens based on what reproductive systems you are born with. We need to do something about that pic.twitter.com/1Y29jwKLb1— Sharon Waxman (@sharonwaxman) December 2, 2021
A video recording of Smith’s speech quickly went viral online.
Smith is now curating the collaborative book A War on My Body chronicling the history of reproductive rights with contributions from other activists, scheduled for a Jan. 22, 2022, release. All proceeds from the book will be donated to the Afiya Center, which promotes sexual and reproductive health for Black women and girls.
3. Deja Foxx
Foxx went on to found El Rio Community Health Center’s Reproductive Health Access Project in Arizona during her senior year of high school. A few years later, she launched the organization Gen Z Girl Gang, which uses social media as a community-building tool, and took time off from college to work on US Vice President Kamala Harris’ presidential campaign as an influencer and surrogate strategist. She continues to use her platform to advocate for reproductive rights on TikTok where she has over 81K followers.
In collaboration with UNFPA to support the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign this year, Foxx participated in an Instagram Live discussion with activist Eliza Hatch of the Cheer Up Luv platform about how to stop online abuse against women and girls.
🤔 How can we have equal rights when we don’t have equal choices?— UNFPA (@UNFPA) September 29, 2021
See the #SDGActionZone conversation between @Atayeshe and @Deja_Foxx to get some answers: https://t.co/h2Y2sZmbPu#MyBodyIsMyOwnpic.twitter.com/13OCmx7G6G
Ferrer is a reproductive rights campaigner and member of Amnesty International’s Global Youth Collective fighting for women to make decisions about their own bodies in Chile. She also started a platform with her friend called Que Se Sepa! (Let It Be Known!) where women can anonymously share their experiences with safe abortion.
“We must continue to fight for equality and change to create a system that respects people, our rights, the earth, and the environment, and make this world a better place for all,” Ferrer said.
“Being a woman growing up in a conservative country like Chile means constantly seeing how our rights are violated, how everything is more difficult for us, and how you are judged for being who you want to be. But it also meant that since I was a child, I wanted to fight for change.”
Nakato tested positive for HIV at the age of 14 after not having sex and learned that the illness had been passed down from her mother. Now the HIV advocate works with the Uganda Network of Young People Living With HIV & AIDS (UNYPA) to educate other young people about HIV risks and improve the well-being of HIV-positive people.
“Women should not be treated as second-class citizens no matter our social status, health status, or setting we live in; just like men, we are all human beings who deserve equal rights and dignity,” Nakato told UN Women.
She is also an active member of Uganda’s Generation Equality Forum consultations.
The contradictions & double standards around different aspects in which women's bodies are policied are what make us a "Résistance" force.— Nakato Martha Clara (@marclara180) November 26, 2021
We can't stand bearing the burdens that are imposed on us by nature of being women. We REFUTE!! @LizB_Maloza@raelwynehttps://t.co/4Y6C4U8ATh