‘My body is my own’

‘My body is my own’

I had the pleasure of being invited to the launch of the State of the World Population Report a week ago. The report was being launched by the UNFPA. This year’s theme was: My body is my own, a topic I am of course very passionate about. The statement of course applies to everyone but in Lesotho, and for most parts of the world, it is often women and non-heterosexual people who get the short end of the stick.

So, whilst we were sitting there it occurred to me that while it is of course very important to table issues related to bodily autonomy on a policy and legislative scale the fight for bodily autonomy begins on a very micro level. It is all well and good to fight for bodily autonomy on major issues like sexual assault and abuse, but society tends to ignore why these women grow up to become women who are not assertive about their own bodies.

Why they never fully believe that their bodies are their own to begin with. That is because the notion that a woman’s body is everyone else’s but her own does not begin when the assault happens, it begins as early as childhood.

The insistence by society that as a girl your body is not your own does not even always come in a sinister manner. Sometimes it is in the form of a well-meaning compliment. “Look at how you have nice hips, you will bear some lucky man some very fine children one day”.

What was meant as a compliment now becomes a reinforcement that your body is for your husband’s enjoyment and as a conduit for your children’s existence. Even the way we jokingly tell young girls that they are pretty is tied to how we want them to be our makotis. It is of course no wonder then that these young girls grow up to become women with the innate belief that they must withstand whatever harm done on their bodies if it means they are fulfilling the greater needs of the society in which they live in.

I have often said only half-jokingly that Basotho women love pain and wear it like a badge of honour but perhaps what I see to be pain is what they see as duty. Take the widely held belief that mothers who give birth through caesarean section are not mothers in the true sense of the word. To be worthy of the title of motherhood it is said that one must give birth the natural way.

Of course, these women who grew up being told that their childbearing hips would fulfil some higher duty are bound to be disappointed when they need external help to deliver the baby. If the body that was created to bring forth children fails to do so, then they believe themselves to have failed. That is why we still have women who will insist on falling pregnant even when doctors have warned them not to do so as it poses a risk to their health.

In their mind their body belongs to their husband first, to bring forth his progeny. It further belongs to their children as a conduit through which they are born. A vehicle of sorts if we are being crude about it. So they ask themselves, what use is a vehicle if it cannot offer the owner, transportation? It never occurs to these women that first and foremost their bodies are their own and everyone else’s needs should be secondary.

Of course, I will be the first one to admit that childbirth and motherhood can be a joyous fulfilling part of a woman’s life. See, part of a woman’s life. Certainly not her whole life. I have been told by numerous mothers that giving your children the gift of life was their greatest pleasure but is that not just it?

The very nature of a gift is that it should be a voluntary act of love that brings one joy. Not an act of service that one must perform even at the expense of both their physical and mental wellbeing. If one mental health and joy is being sacrificed just to bring children into the world then it is no longer a gift but an act of servitude and bondage. The same applies to telling young girls that they must be pretty in order to be likeable.

I will be the first to admit that being pretty is nice but being pretty is also something that can bring you, the owner of the face, joy. One’s whole existence should not be spent clamouring for the validation that you are indeed pretty in other people’s eyes. To paraphrase Warsan Shire, women’s existence is not about how attractive you find them.

So, while it is of course beneficial and needed to hold dialogues and implement policies that protect women’s rights to bodily autonomy we first need to raise a generation of women who know without being told that their bodies are their own. Only when we have women who truly believe that their bodies are their own first, before they can willingly let other people enjoy the benefits that those bodies bring will we see a decline in women protecting abusers at the expense of their bodies.

Thakane Rethabile Shale

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