It's been an uphill battle over centuries for women to have the right to say and do as they please, and to make decisions over their own bodies, lives, and futures.

When it comes to gender equality, one thing the whole world can agree on is that we've not yet achieved it — and not one country in the world has reached the milestone of viewing and treating women equally, and acknowledging them as autonomous beings who have a say over their decisions, movements, and bodies. 

Few things in this world have been fought over as extensively as women’s bodies. You’d think by now, in 2023, women would be free to make choices over their bodies and their futures; that we’d have reached a collective understanding that all human beings have the right to do what they want with their own bodies. Alas, we’re not there yet — instead, women’s sexual and reproductive health, their safety, and their rights are at risk the world over.

But to map out our journey to an equitable future, it’s important to know how far we’ve come. Here are some of the most pivotal moments in recent history that have shaped the fight for women’s bodily autonomy. 


The first oral contraceptive is invented and approved by the US’s FDA. This was a huge win after women had fought for it for decades, and scientists had to work around laws that prohibited contraceptive research at the time. The ability for women to control their reproductive cycle ushered in a transformation in women’s engagement in society, the economy, and politics in the US. 


The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is created. The UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency has been hard at work for 50 years building knowledge, awareness, and capacity on the importance of bodily autonomy, reproductive health and family planning, and to promote strategies and solutions for developing countries that are based on gender equality and human rights. 


The US institutes the “global gag rule”. A.k.a. the Mexico City Policy, this dangerous policy prevents US aid and support for international organizations and partners whose work involves abortion. These organizations are often prohibited from sourcing funding elsewhere for this purpose. Between 1984 and 2022, the rule has been enacted and reversed by Republican and Democratic administrations respectively.


World leaders met at pivotal human rights conferences during this time, in Vienna, Beijing, and Cairo. At these important meetings, violence against women (VAW) is finally recognized as a human rights violation; the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is created; and an agenda to tackle gender-based violence (GBV) globally is adopted. In Beijing, Hiliary Clinton delivered her now-famous saying that “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”.


UN Women is created. Recognizing the world was falling behind on progress towards gender equality, leaders united different agencies and offices to create a new organ of the UN system focused exclusively on gender equality and the empowerment of women. Over the last decade, UN Women has made sure women’s rights stay on world leader’s agenda while supporting feminist movements and women leaders around the world. 


The UN passes the first resolution calling for a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) worldwide. In the same year, Somalia officially bans FGM, and three years later, so does Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. 


Protests against Poland’s restrictive abortion laws begin. These demonstrations were in response to the country’s constitutional court proposing then imposing a near-total ban on abortion. The ban still exists today.


Global protests against the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the US. Roe v. Wade was implemented in 1973 to safeguard the constitutional right to abortion across the US. In 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned this 50 year decision, putting the question of women’s bodily autonomy and rights up for debate once again and putting millions of women’s lives, health, and futures in the balance. When it was overturned, women in the country and around the world united in protest. The fight continues.


The Taliban ceases the sale of contraceptives in Afghanistan, stating that they are a "Western conspiracy" designed to control the Muslim population. This comes with reports of soldiers using the threat of violence to stop pharmacies and health facilities from stocking any form of birth control. Shortly before this, the Taliban ended higher education for girls and women, and forced women out of employment.

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9 Pivotal Historic Moments in the Fight for Women's Bodily Autonomy

By Khanyi Mlaba