Justice and equity fell into sharp focus on 1 October when the AIDS & Rights Alliance for Southern Africa (ARASA) launched a campaign to call for the realisation of the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity in Southern and East Africa.
The rights to bodily autonomy and integrity presuppose the ability for everyone to have dignity and agency to own and take decisions and make choices – including those related to Sexual Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) - over one’s body without regard to external pressures.
Dubbed ‘Every BODY Counts!’ and launched virtually, the regional campaign got underway on Thursday with human rights activists calling for the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity of everyone, particularly marginalized and disenfranchised people, including sexual minorities, to be considered in SRHR programming and for implementation to be prioritised.
The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, South African medical practitioner Tlakeng Mofokeng, welcomed the campaign.
In pre-recorded keynote remarks played at the launch, she said: “It is important to consider the need to address the pervasive gender inequality as a cross-cutting issue that affects everyone’s right to realise the best outcomes in terms of health.”
She called for human rights-based interventions to allow expression and enjoyment of human rights for everyone including Key Populations.
Organisers of the campaign hope that the campaign will spark a movement that will draw Southern and East Africa closer to realising the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity.
“We believe that the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity are critical for the creation of just, equal, productive and resilient societies, in which social justice and human dignity are at the centre of all development, policy and organising; and health and wellbeing are promoted for all,” said ARASA’s director, Felicita Hikuam while introducing the campaign.
The campaign seeks to raise the awareness of the importance of protecting and respecting bodily autonomy and integrity to achieve access to health services, gender equality and the attainment of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Hikuam said her organisation believes that the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity are core principles that can mobilise and unite diverse stakeholders and movements in addressing the social and structural determinants of health, addressing gender inequality, and in advancing sexual and reproductive rights.
She said coalitions of civil society organisations in Namibia, Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho, and Uganda and across southern and east Africa will collaborate with ARASA to influence relevant policy interventions for the realisation of the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity in Southern and East Africa.
“The aim is to influence policy change to increase access to services and commodities that are essential to the realisation of bodily autonomy and integrity and ultimately for the achievement of SRHR. We will focus on sexual orientation and gender identity, HIV prevention, access to safe abortion and integration of sexual reproductive health rights into universal health coverage,” an upbeat Hikuam said.
At regional level, work during the campaign will continue in collaboration with sub-regional bodies that include the SADC Parliamentary Forum (PF), the SADC Secretariat and others to ensure implementation of standards that lead to the realisation of bodily integrity and autonomy.
In Namibia, the coalition lead is Positive Vibes. In Botswana, Bonella will be the arrowhead of the coalition. In Uganda, Uganda Network on Law Ethics and HIV/AIDS (UGANET) will take the lead while in Lesotho, the coalition will be led by Development for Peace Education DPE (DPE).
For ARASA, the campaign comes at a critical point when the regional organisation is going through a strategic shift in its programming against the backdrop of lessons learned over the years around the use of rights-based approaches to respond to public health crises including HIV and AIDS.
Hikuam revealed that ARASA was now angling for a broader impact on health equality and health equity.
“We think bodily autonomy is the framing that will shift things in the broad sexual reproductive health rights arena,” she said.
There are many policy frameworks that have been put in place towards many ideals including Universal Health Coverage. The role of the coalitions and this campaign is to ensure implementation at national and regional levels.
There are growing concerns that human rights violations are continuing in some instances, regardless of tools put in place.
In countries characterised by power asymmetries, access to HIV prevention services and commodities as well as safe abortion is still not a reality. This is especially true for meeting the health and rights needs of members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Reports say that under Covid-19, the vulnerable continue to bear the brunt of the pandemic, while lack of access to commodities on sexual reproductive health rights as well as contraceptives continues to be a challenge.