Women’s Rights as Human Rights: Local and Global Perspectives
Strategies and Analyses from the ICCL Working Conference on Women’s Rights as Human Rights (Dublin, March 1997)
Edited by Niamh Reilly

Bodily Integrity and Security of Person

The discussion began with the idea that "bodily integrity unifies women and that no woman can say that it does not apply to them." The group went on to explore what is meant by women’s human right to Bodily Integrity and identified several key elements which are central to the concept:

Freedom of Movement. This is a basic civil right which is often severely limited in women’s daily lives. The threat of assault, rape, and other forms of violence against women, limits where women can go, who they go with, how they travel, and the time of the day or night they can enjoy "freedom of movement." Freedom of movement for women with disabilities requires greater access to public spaces and buildings. Racism and intolerance levelled against the Traveller community also have particular effects on Traveller women. In addition, the state can also directly impinge on women’s freedom of movement. The intervention by the Irish state to stop the young girl in the "X case" travelling to the UK for an abortion is an example.

Security of Person. The right to live in safety underscores women’s right not to be subjected to physical, sexual, or emotional violence inside or outside the home, either by private individuals or by people acting on the part of the state. Sexual harassment of women prisoners, or the use of rape as a form of torture, are examples of state-sponsored violations of Bodily Integrity. Participants in the working session highlighted the issue of strip searching by security forces in Northern Ireland as a major area of concern in this regard. It was also stated that the right to Bodily Integrity and security of person includes mental integrity, that is, freedom from mental and psychological abuse.

The concern was also raised that violence is becoming increasingly normalised in Western society, which has an inevitable knock-on effect on how violence against women is perceived. One participant posed the question, "why should women always have to take on the responsibility for dealing with the violence perpetrated against us?" In this context it is also important to address the root causes of violence against women.

It is not enough that services are geared solely towards dealing with the aftermath of male abuse, while no investment is being put into exploring why these abuses are occurring in the first instance. Research on the root causes of violence needs to inform education and remedial action in this area.

Reproductive and Sexual Rights. Control of reproductive and sexual rights was also put forward as central to the idea of Bodily Integrity. This includes "the right to information about our bodies and the idea that that women do not have sole responsibility for contraception." Reproductive and sexual rights affirm the rights of all women—including women with disabilities and lesbians—to sexual expression and to make their own informed decisions about reproduction.

Women’s Health. The right of women to Bodily Integrity also includes the right to health and demands woman-centred health care. Reproductive and gynaecological health services are the largest part of women’s experience within the medical establishment. Yet, the provision of these services continues to be male-defined and insensitive to women’s rights and needs. The ongoing Hepatitis C scandal (brought about by the fact that thousands of women were given contaminated blood products after the birth of their babies and the inadequate government response to the crisis) was given as an example of a "major abuse of Irish women." The abuse of women’s mental health was also raised as an area of concern; many felt that the psychiatric profession was too willing to label women as "mentally ill" and to prescribe drugs without looking at the causes of women’s illness.

Breaking Women’s Isolation. Participants in the working session also took a broader view of Bodily Integrity and Security of Person by including women’s physical isolation from services and resources as an issue under this theme. The isolation of women living in rural areas needs to be taken on board. The isolation of lesbian women in rural areas was also noted. One woman said that "three out of three local newspapers in some areas were refusing to carry the Lesbian Helpline number."

In particular the group underlined the need for access to child care as key to breaking women’s isolation in the private sphere. More extensive and more affordable child care facilities is essential if women are to have access to educational and employment opportunities and to become economically independent. Economic dependence on men is one of the main factors preventing women from leaving an abusive relationship. Further, women should demand more and cheaper access to child care facilities "so that attending conferences like today’s, for example, is possible." Participants also emphasised that women also should have the right to choose to stay in the home to rear children with financial backing from the state. A broader interpretation of Bodily Integrity also insists on the right of women to an identity that is not defined in terms of men and the traditional nuclear family. As one participant put it, "I am tired of being called a single parent. I am a woman with a child and choose not to be with a partner. Yet I am seen as a woman without a man or a woman whom a man didn’t want."

Education and Bodily Integrity. All the groups identified a huge need for education from primary school onward. Children have the right to bodily integrity. As one woman asked, "who owns children’s bodies?" The Stay Safe Programme (in the Republic of Ireland) was cited as an example of an important strategy in this area. However, while many felt it was useful, it was also noted that once-off programmes were not enough and that an integrated approach needs to be adopted by schools. Such an approach would not only address the dangers of violations of bodily integrity but would also foster "a celebration of our bodies as women."

As part of this much needed education the following areas were cited as requiring attention: children, especially girls, need to be educated about bodily integrity and to learn that no one has the right to violate that integrity; girls should be taught that they are not responsible for the sexual responses of men; girls should be encouraged to take pride in their bodies (yet the current value attached solely to girls/women’s physical appearance needs to be redressed). It was noted that 1998 is the Year of the Girl Child and this could be used by groups to organise specific activities.

Networking. It is vital that women have opportunities for coming together to talk and exchange perspectives. Such networking fosters solidarity and is an important tool for action. In addition to actual meetings, it is important to utilise newsletters and the Internet to maintain communication and disseminate information. There is also a need for locally-based information and awareness centres as well as locally-based seminars and events.

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