What is women’s ‘bodily autonomy’ and why does it matter for everyone?

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: John Letzing, Digital Editor, Strategic Intelligence, World Economic Forum


  • Roughly half of all women reportedly lack the ability to freely make choices about their own bodies.
  • In some places they face growing threats to their bodily autonomy.
  • Women’s History Month presents an opportunity to reflect on issues like reproductive rights.

A relatively recent study traced the success and failure of European regions between the 16th and 19th centuries, and identified something that may have already been obvious to at least one in about every two people.

Places that afforded women more autonomy by enabling them to put off marriage until comfortably into adulthood, like the United Kingdom on the eve of the Industrial Revolution, thrived economically, the study found. Those that did not fell behind.

The takeaway? If half of humanity is not unfairly burdened everyone will benefit.

That may be particularly true in terms of bodily autonomy, or the power of women to make choices about their own bodies without facing coercion or violence.

However, a United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report has suggested that roughly half of all women are denied bodily autonomy. In the 57 countries surveyed, the proportion of women aged between 15 and 49 able to make autonomous decisions when it comes to sex with partners or husbands, contraception, and seeking health care ranged from 87% to as low as 7%.

Meanwhile laws that are compelling women to continue non-viable pregnancies, or forcing them to leave a country to terminate those pregnancies, violate recognized human rights, according to the report.

Image: United Nations Population Fund

The global imbalance when it comes to basic bodily rights may be worsening in some places. In the United States, Poland, and Nicaragua, for example, abortion has become increasingly restricted or totally illegal.

These reversals are worth considering as we mark the passing of another International Women’s Day, in the midst of what’s commemorated as Women’s History Month.

Women’s bodies, women’s choices

Research has demonstrated that denying women access to abortion triggers outcomes that reverberate throughout their lives, impacting everything from the school years they complete to how much they earn.

One study conducted over a decade with about 1,000 women who’d either had or been denied abortions found that those denied suffered from higher levels of anxiety, and lower self-esteem.

Margaret Atwood, author of the landmark novel about dystopian patriarchy “The Handmaid’s Tale,” recently wrote that for every headline about gains in reproductive rights, there seem to be others underscoring “how fragile these rights are, wherever you live.”

Liberalization of abortion restrictions in recent decades, from prohibited (left) to available on request (right).
Liberalization of abortion restrictions in recent decades, from prohibited (left) to available on request (right). Image: Center for Reproductive Rights

Still, in the past several decades nearly 50 countries have liberalized their abortion laws, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Meanwhile, the use of modern contraception has more than doubled since 1994, according to the UNFPA – which also estimates that as of last year, 217 million women still had unmet related needs.

More good news from the UNFPA coupled with bad: female genital mutilation has declined in countries where the practice is common, but as many as four million girls were still subjected to it in 2020.

That same year, an estimated 12 million girls were married before turning 18.

Thankfully, the authors of the study on women’s historical autonomy in Europe, which keyed on rates of early marriage, also pointed to more contemporary, upbeat data points.

Botswana’s GDP growth has been paired with a relatively high rate of gender equality, they noted, and shifts in South Korea and China from “extreme” gender inequality in the early 20th century to relatively high equality by the 1970s helped position both countries for dramatic economic advances.

More reading on women’s autonomy and rights

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Instead of tackling the systemic biases that sustain inequality and injustice, “confidence culture” is wrongly pushing women to turn inwards and work on themselves, according to this analysis. (LSE Business Review)
  • How Black feminists defined abortion rights – according to this piece, when the National Organization for Women was formed in the US in 1966, it patterned its mission after the civil-rights strategy of changing the legal framework of discrimination. (The New Yorker)
  • “Many Afghan women have expressed nostalgia for the halcyon days of the foreign military presence.” According to this piece, that military presence was never meant to provide long-term solutions. (The Diplomat)
  • Four Black women who have advanced civil rights: the list includes a leader of the movement to end female genital cutting, a campaigner for the rights of favela residents in Brazil, the first woman appointed director-general of the World Trade Organisation, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. (The Conversation)
  • “They’re the generation that’s going to save the babies.” According to this piece, many people in the US might be surprised to learn just how young anti-abortion activists there tend to be. (The Atlantic)
  • Science may not be able to decide philosophical questions about when life begins or when the rights of a foetus start to outweigh the agency of the woman carrying it, according to this piece, but it can tell us about consequences when abortion is unavailable. (Nature)
  • A Tunisian singer’s announcement that she’ll freeze her eggs in the hope of becoming a mother provoked heated debate in that country about women’s reproductive rights, according to this report. (Al Monitor)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Women’s Health, Gender Inequality and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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