Bodily Autonomy, and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights
This module carries resources on access to safe and legal abortion, choice, consent, bodily autonomy and integrity, Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), pleasure and more.
The below study guide was made collaboratively with the contribution of many younger and older feminists active in movements and the Beijing+25 process. Read about our contributors on the About page. Explore all 7 sections at your own pace!
Welcome to the Bodily Autonomy & Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) study guide.
SRHR is more than just reproductive health. Access to safe and legal abortion, choice, consent, bodily autonomy and integrity, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE), pleasure and so much more are part of what makes up SRHR. It is a fairly new concept in human rights popularized by the advocacy of young people and feminists in the last 25 years. SRHR also exists side by side with other approaches like Family Planning, Sexual Health, Reproductive Justice etc.
This study guide starts with video dialogues featuring younger and older feminists followed by key concepts, examples of movements & advocacy, a toolbox and quiz. An e-certificate is available if you ace the quiz!
Note: The Feminist Action Lab is meant to be a starting point, not a comprehensive guide. Content updated June 2021.
What is Bodily Autonomy & SRHR and why is a feminist and intergenerational approach important? Latanya Mapp Frett, CEO of Global Fund for Women discusses this with Faith Kaoma, young feminist and co-founder of Copper Rose, Zambia. Learn more about Latanya and Faith on the About page.
1. Bodily Autonomy and SRHR
Feminists have helped define Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) beyond narrow definitions focused on health. The Generation Equality Forum (GEF), the Beijing Platform for Action and many global advocacy spaces use the concept of Bodily Autonomy to frame sexual rights and SRHR.
Bodily autonomy is the right to make free and informed decisions about your body and life. Like the saying, “My body, my choice”, bodily autonomy extends to everything from deciding what you wear, who or how you love, if and how you want to reproduce and much more. In other words, it’s about having power to control and decide about your own body.
Unfortunately, not all bodies are considered equal. Different bodies are the target of laws, policies and policing because, afterall, a person’s power is connected to the social world they live in. They encounter different forms of discrimination, violence, even criminalization but are also subject to cultural norms, moral arguments or gendered expectations like narratives of “protection”, security, or “purity”.
Bodily Autonomy and SRHR is not a women and girl’s issue. SRHR and the right to decide about your body and life is for all genders, sexual orientations and bodies! A domestic worker in India, a young boy with a physical disabiliy in Tanzania, an intersex person in Colombia – theoretically all have the right to make decisions about their own body – but in practice face multiple and different restrictions, laws, and social control mechanisms preventing them from freely doing so.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2021 reported that nearly half of all women are denied bodily autonomy. Read their report “My Body is My Own – Claiming the right to autonomy and self-determination” (Download here) to dive deeper into Bodily Autonomy and SRHR.
2. Gender Ideology and Rising Fundamentalisms
Despite being enshrined in global human rights today, Bodily Autonomy & SRHR continue to be highly contested issues. Feminists, youth-led and human rights groups are facing a lot of push-back by governments, conservatives and special interest groups because of a growing fundamentalist narrative or “gender ideology”.
Dozens of laws such as the 2021 Polish Constitutional Court decision declaring abortion (except for in cases of rape, incest and threat to the life of the woman) illegal, to laws criminalising young people’s sexuality, laws criminalising certain identities and professions, are all examples of closing civil spaces and the impact of rising “gender ideology” against Bodily Autonomy.
The GEF Action Coalition leader CREA has created a series of videos on gender ideology and how this thinking is endangering the human rights space. Here is one of ther videos from feminist activist Sonia Correa elaborating on this troubling trend.
3. Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE)
In order to practice bodily autonomy and claim our SRHR rights, ensuring we have the knowledge and unbiased information necessary for us to make those decisions is also fundamentally important.
Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) is a youth-friendly, rights-based, age-appropriate and holistic approach to sexuality education that goes far beyond learning about biology and safe sex. Sexuality after all is also about knowing our bodies and desires, not just about reproductive organs or preventing pregnancy. CSE brings in the physical and emotional, individual and partnered experiences of sexuality and spans conversations across gender equality, body image, puberty, destigmatizing HIV, the right to pleasure, self-esteem, sexual diversity and LGBTQI affirming perspectives. For a full definition of CSE, read the Guttmacher Institute’s handout outlining 7 essential dimensions of CSE here.
The 1994 ICPD Program of Action was the first UN convention that explicitly recognized not just adults, but young people’s right to SRHR. ICPD, among many other conventions, enables us to demand CSE and youth-friendly SRHR services. Organizations like Restless Development and youth-led organizations advocate for centering youth and youth-leadership at all levels of CSW from design, dissemination, implementation to evaluation. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of violence against Women (CEDAW), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), International 14 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as national commitments made by your country can help ground your advocacy for CSE.
The Youth Coalition, a youth-led sexual rights organization and youth-lead for the GEF Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy, has a wide range of resources for working on CSE and SRHR advocacy. Visit their resource site here!
Consent is a feminist value central to all SRHR and Bodily Autonomy work! It must be given freely without force, threat or coercion. There are multiple forms of consent such as “informed consent” – where the consent giver must at all times be well informed of the nature of the act being consented to. For example, if you are seeking contraceptives at your local gynecologist or SRHR service provider – you do not automatically consent to everything they suggest. The medical practitioner must make sure you understand what each of the services or medecins being offered are and their impacts on your life and health in an unbiased way, before you consent!
Consent is specific and revocable too. That means the consent giver can at any point revoke consent. It is not a one-time or permanent approval; it needs to be given each time.
While consent is defined in law, it is often in the context of violence (in most jurisdictions the definition of consent is usually associated with rape). Our experience of consent however often happens outside the law and is negotiated entirely outside the context of violence. In fact, we negotiate consent every day in all aspects of our lives. Take a look at this video aimed at young children to help them cultivate a culture of consent from Blue Seat Studios.
Some Myths About Consent
- Myth: If two people have had sex with each other before, or are in a relationship, consent is automatically present.
Fact: Consent in relationships is the same as consent outside of them! It must be freely given and can be revoked by the giver at any time. It’s not a one-time or permanent approval!
- Myth: Consent is only necessary when it comes to penetrative sex.
Fact: Penetrative sex as well as non-penetrative sex, or any sexual act requires consent of both parties. Consent is part of our sexual as well as non-sexual lives!
- Myth: The victim “asked for it” because they were flirting or dressed a certain way, drunk or careless.
Fact: Absolutely no one, regardless of their apparel, perceived behavior or sexuality gives up their ability to consent or practice bodily autonomy. Consent must be freely given and asked for.
NB: The international age of consent to sexual acts is 16 although different states have different age of consent, a person under the legal age of consent cannot give consent.
Feminists use “intersectionality” to frame SRHR advocacy for all people. This is a major shift in SRHR which has historically been designed for heterosexual women and girls, often assumed to be in ‘traditional’ marriage or family arrangements. Through the vocal political advocacy of feminists, people with HIV/AIDS, youth, LGBTQI, sex workers, people with disabilities and more – the full diversity of experiences, needs, and challenges to accessing sexual rights and services is more of a conversation.
“Intersectionality” may be one of the most important ideas to have emerged from feminist movements in recent times. Black feminist and legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw first coined the term in 1989 to describe how different characteristics like race, age, class, gender, sexual orientation and more are linked in how people experience oppression, power and privilege. This matters because by using an intersectional lens, we can address inequality at its roots rather than one branch at a time.
You can watch Kimberle Crenshaw define the concept of “intersectionality” in her own words in the following video.
Source: National Association of Independent Schools.
Intersectionality can help different feminists find common ground and build greater solidarity between movements. Here’s an example from the Zika virus outbreak in 2015.
When the Zika virus spread across the world in 2015-16, pregnant people with Zika developed a higher chance of delivering babies with microcephaly, a congenital neurological condition. The World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health institutions recommended ‘deferring pregnancies’ – something that simply was not possible or rooted in reality for people in South America and the Caribbean because of highly restrictive policies to access contraception, abortion and SRHR.
The global reproductive justice movement criticized the WHO for their apolitical recommendation, which in fact, went against people’s right to bodily autonomy (which includes becoming pregnant when they want). Instead feminists renewed their call for expanding and decriminalizing access to contraception, abortion and family planning. However, they soon realized their call for greater access was done without consulting feminists from the disability rights movement!
In calling for greater access to abortion for example, feminists temporarily fell into the trap of promoting and normalizing disability-selective abortion. It was through convenings and cross-movement dialogue between feminists from the disability justice movement and from the reproductive justice movement that Zika became a place of convergence. Eventually, the centering of the rights of people with disabilities and their families was more widely recognized in Zika advocacy. You can read more about Zika and the centering of Disability Justice in the Center for Reproductive Rights’s (CRR) statement on Zika (2018).
6. Reproductive Justice
While we may sometimes use the word “rights” and “justice” interchangeably in SRHR- the historical origin of the term “Reproductive Justice” (RJ) is distinct and significant for the field thanks to the leadership of black feminists.
Before the seminal 1994 UN ICPD Conference, a collective of black feminists from the US organized under the name ‘Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice’ created the term Reproductive Justice in response to the insufficient ways women of color’s needs and lived experiences were missing from mainstream feminism (read more of this history at Sister Song). The RJ framework was a seachange for human rights that reignited the importance of focusing on structural inequalities and oppressions as central issues of access. There is no “choice” unless there is safe and affordable access.
For example, just because the legal right to contraception exists does not mean that unmarried girls from low-income families can freely and equally access contraception from a public service provider or hospital. There maybe stigma, shame, racial or religious discrimination, barriers in cost, mobility or criminalization of sexualities that shapes access. In the RJ framework, housing justice, environmental justice, gender justice, education justice, wage justice – are all part of reproductive justice.
To learn more about RJ watch this video from BlackRJ.org:
7. Reasonable Accommodation
Reasonable accommodation has been historically used by disability movements globally. A concept broader than “accessibility”, reasonable accommodation can be defined as ensuring that every accommodation, reasonably possible, should ensure the full and effective participation of a person in all aspects of life. We cannot practice intersectionality without ensuring that everyone is first in the room, and not only are they there, but they have equal access to the room. SRHR issues are disability issues and thus reasonable accommodation is a principle that is integral to intersectionality! More importantly, ensuring reasonable accommodation does not just support participation of people with disabilities, but is beneficial for all feminism as it helps the full and effective participation of everyone.
There are many approaches, models and politics of disability that exist simultaneously. For example, there are significant differences between “disability rights”, the “charity model” of disability, the “social model of disability”, “queer crip” and “disability justice”. Disability justice, as explored by Patricia Berne and other feminist activists have some core tenants that share values like Bodily Autonomy and SRHR. This includes:
- All bodies are unique and essential.
- All bodies have strengths and needs that must be met.
- We are powerful, not despite the complexities of our bodies, but because of them.
- All bodies are confined by ability, race, gender, sexuality, class, nation state, religion, and more, and we cannot separate them.
Dive deeper by reading an adaptation of Berne’s “What is Disability Justice – A Working Model” here.
Women Enabled, a GEF Action Coalition leader, and disability-feminist led INGO has published many resources on the intersection of young people, disability and SRHR. To dive deeper into the intersection of disability and SRHR check out some of their resources here:
8. SOGIESC, Yogyakarta and Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD)
In many advocacy spaces you will encounter the language of ‘SOGIESC’ or Sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and sex characteristics. A useful list of terminologies on SOGIESC can be found here from Parliamentarians for Global Action.
At the heart of ‘bodily autonomy’ and SRHR is the idea that our rights are inalienable and universal. Despite this, human rights abuses against LGBTQI people or discrimination based on SOGIESC are widespread, including being criminalized (see the Action Coalition leader ILGA’s map of countries criminalizing homosexuality here).
Advocacy around SOGIESC has shaped the SRHR and Bodily Autonomy movement so that sexual binaries (i.e. cis gender, or the idea that there are only men and women rather than many diverse genders) are not reinforced and that sexual and gender diversity can be upheld. A significant human rights platform to push for the recognition of SOGIESC was the 2006 Yogyakarta Principles, a document created by key LGBTQI experts and advocates outside of the formal UN space.
In 2021, some feminists are recognising even the limitations in using LGBTI/SOGIESC terminology, and moving towards a discourse of Sexual and Gender Diversity (SGD). SGD aims to challenge the heteronormative understanding of sex, gender and sexuality while centring an intersectional and political approach to LGBTI/SOGIESC. In the SGD approach, SRHR is not a ‘women’s issue’. SRHR is an issue relevant to all genders and all sexualities, with an imperative of centering diverse lived realities.
1. Skin Stories (India)
“Skin Stories is the first and only publication in India dedicated to publishing fresh, urgent perspectives on disability, sexuality and gender. Housed at the non-profit Point of View, we believe in great storytelling to bust myths about and promote important conversations around disability in South Asia.”
Skin Stories’ use of storytelling is a powerful example of intersectional SRHR advocacy focussed on changing culture by centering the lived experiences of young people with disabilities, in their own voices. The power of cultural work is often discounted when compared to legal or policy-advocacy. We would challenge these views and point to the power that stories have to connect with people, cultivate curiosity and questioning and ultimately transform deeply entrenched biases and norms.
2. Injusta Justicia (Latin America & Caribbean)
Injusta Justicia is a Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC)-wide campaign led by Resurj, Vecinas Feministas, and Balance AC. In their own words the campaign:
“The Unjust Justice campaign seeks to reflect on the limits of criminal law and punitivism as a strategy for the defense of sexual and reproductive rights, mainly of adolescents. Among others, the campaign seeks to draw attention to the unforeseen consequences of the unrestricted application of criminal laws and how this impacts the lives and autonomy of adolescents. In that sense, Injusta Justicia does not have all the answers nor does it pretend to have them, but rather seeks to generate the debate and have the discussions that we need as feminists to propose strategies and transformative alternatives focused on survivors. We invite you to be part of these dialogues.”
Learn more about the punitive laws operating in LAC countries against adolescents and young people seeking their reproductive and sexual rights, along with recommendations on how to advocate for greater SRHR in the region by visiting the campaign website.
3. Youth-Led Accountability for Gender Equality (Tanzania)
Restless Development has been working with a network of young people across Tanzania and India to conduct youth-led research, advocate and ultimately improve access to SRHR and sexual rights. We are highlighting TWO of our youth advocates from Tanzania to tell you in their own words about their advocacy on SRHR.
Dorice Mkiva is a young feminist and disability rights activist from Tanzania. We got to interview her about her work and what about feminism she’s passionate about.
Read her full Story: https://
“Personally, throughout my education journey, I did not have access to SRHR education. My community and family did not see the need to educate me on that. They believed that people living with disabilities (PLWD) are not engaging in sexual relationships due to their disabilities which is not true. [These assumptions and views] violate our rights as human beings. This thinking is the same across decision-makers – who often see our disabilities as obstacles to contributing to, attending, and engaging in community and family meetings. I wanted to change this narrative by telling the community that disability is not an inability and that PLWD deserves the same rights, opportunities, and treatment as other members of the community” – Dorice Mkiva, Youth Accountability Advocate
Joseph Julius is a young gender equality activist from Tanzania who has also been campaigning on access to SRHR and sexual rights of young people in his community. In this video he shares with us his experience as a youth activist for SRHR.
4. UN International Conference for Population Development (ICPD)
The 1994 UN International Conference for Population Development (ICPD) was held in Cairo Egypt. ICPD was a historic moment in SRHR because it was the first human rights convention to mention SRHR as a human right for adults and young people. Commitments made in the 1994 ICPD were reaffirmed 25+ years later in 2019 during the Nairobi Summit (read the 2019 report here). The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is the main UN agency responsible for the ICPD convention.
Based on the ICPD and subsequent UN interpretations of SRHR, in 2018 the Guttmacher–Lancet Commission defined SRHR to mean “a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing in relation to all aspects of sexuality and reproduction, not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity.
Therefore, a positive approach to sexuality and reproduction should recognise the part played by pleasurable sexual relationships, trust, and communication in the promotion of self-esteem and overall well being. All individuals have a right to make decisions governing their bodies and to access services that support that right.” (Ann M Starrs et al., n.d., p. 2646).
5. The Beijing Platform For Action & Generation Equality Forum
The Beijing Declaration is a defining document addressing gender equality. In 1995 the Declaration was a result of over 30,000 activists globally coming together and advocating for the rights of women and girls during the Fourth World Conference on Women, in Beijing China. It produced ‘12 critical areas of concern’ including ‘Women and Health’ and became a non-legally binding global policy platform for gender equality that continues to be active today.
The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is an annual conference and the official monitoring and implementation body on the Beijing Declaration, governed by UN Women. Though ground breaking, marginalized groups such as LGBTIQ groups, women with disabilities and sex workers were not included in the original drafting and negotiation process and have since been advocating to be included fully as constituencies for the realization of the commitments.
Today, the 2021 Generation Equality Forum (GEF) hosted by the Governments of Mexico and France is a conference aiming to accelerate what was started in 1995. The GEF has 6 major “Action Coalitions” (AC) or a group of government, UN agency, private sector and civil society/feminist organizations leading a 5 year advocacy process on Bodily Autonomy and SRHR. Some key tools and the AC on Bodily Autonomy and SRHR has provided so far include:
- A Blueprint for Action on Bodily Autonomy & SRHR
- A Global Acceleration Plan for Gender Equality that includes 4 “Game-Changing” Advocacy Targets Bodily Autonomy & SRHR
- A Commitment Making Platform to track your government’s, private sector stakeholders and civil society commitments. This platform will also be a way for your organization to sign up as a commitment maker and engage in longer term advocacy with ACs.
Youth Power at the GEF
Power within UN spaces is an active and contested process. Young feminists and youth-led organizations have the right to be equal partners and decision-makers at advocacy spaces like the GEF.
Whether or not the GEF is able to engage youth in meaningful ways will be based on a number of factors including holding donors, states, UN agencies and civil society organizations accountable to intergeneration power sharing, restoring, and resourcing.
In an effort to create more meaningful and youth-led spaces for advocacy, several regional and global youth manifestos and platforms have already been created. We highly encourage Action Lab users to get involved with the following collaborative youth-led initiatives below:
Generation Equality Forum’s Action Coalition on SRHR & Bodily Autonomy has created a global Blueprint for Action. Download the Blueprint as a starting point for your own local, national and regional advocacy.
The Sexual Rights Initiative (SRI) digital databases on SRHR laws and policies, Universal Periodic Reviews (UPR), and UN resources are comprehensive depositories on UN engagements and advocacy strategies.
The Guttmacher Center for Population Research Innovation and Dissemination has put together a collection of community datasets (created by various Guttmacher researchers) on a range of topics relevant to SRHR.
The Guttmacher Institute’s handout on comprehensive sexuality education demystifies some of the core features that need to be included in an effective, intersectional, and youth friendly CSE curriculum – including key concepts, terminology, and language.
The manual draws on the CSW process and the 12 areas for concern, and highlights how organisations and individuals can engage with international and global advocacy spaces.
Partners for Law in Development, an India based organisation, complicates the conversation on consent with a set of 11 videos.
As a response to the global conservative agenda to restrict SRHR, this podcast highlights strategies being used by individuals, groups, communities, movements and organisations to realise these rights.
An accountability framework to better support young people to call for increased accountability for sexual rights , specifically at local and national levels where much of the youth-led accountability takes place (Part 1, 2 and 3)
While it can seem overwhelming, we can do so many things to demand reproductive justice and SRHR for all. Here are some things to keep in mind when planning your actions and activism!
- Do your research! That means learning more about the feminist agenda in your country from seasoned activists and emerging ones!
- Question and be curious. Now that you know some principles in feminism (the importance of power, systemic change, intersectionality) you can better identify feminism from ‘gender ideology’ and other conservative movements! Question people who exclude or reinforce binaries! Break your own binaries!
- Organize your community. Instead of becoming an individual leader on your own, build your collective voice and organize your community! There are many movements to join and learn from – find your allies and get involved!
- Raise your voice & advocate!
You have the right to be at the table and participate meaningfully in local, national and global spaces. Raise your voice and become a feminist advocate!
Are you ready to get involved in global and national feminist movements? Head to our Action study guide to learn more about the GEF and other networks you can join.
Anand Grover. (2011). Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (A/66/254).
Ann M Starrs, Alex C Ezeh, Gary Barker, Alaka Basu, Jane T Bertrand, Robert Blum, Awa M Coll-Seck, Anand Grover, Laura Laski, Monica Roa, Zeba A Sathar, Lale Say, Gamal I Serour, Susheela Singh, Karin Stenberg, Marleen Temmerman, Ann Biddlecom, Anna Popinchalk, Cynthia Summers, & Lori S Ashford. (n.d.). Accelerate progress—Sexual and reproductive health and rights for all: Report of the Guttmacher–Lancet Commission. The Lancet, 391, 2642–2692.
Berne, P., Morales, A. L., Langstaff, D., & Sins Invalid. (2018). Ten Principles of Disability Justice. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 46(1/2), 227–230.
CEDAW. (2017). General recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women, updating general recommendation No. 19.
CEDAW. (2020). General recommendation No. 38 (2020) on trafficking in women and girls in the context of global migration.
CHANGE. (2019). What is SRHR. https://srhrforall.org/what-is-srhr/
Dainius Pūras. (2016). Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (A/HRC/32/32).
Dainius Pūras. (2020). Final report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health (A/75/163).
Marleen Temmerman, Rajat Khosla, & Lale Say. (2014). Sexual and reproductive health and rights: A global development, health, and human rights priority. The Lancet, 384(9941), e30–e31.
Merwe, L. A. van der, & Tamale, S. (2014). Negotiating Choice and Rights in Hierarchies of Power. Global Dialogue on Decriminalisation, Choice and Consent.
OHCHR. (n.d.). Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights. https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/women/wrgs/pages/healthrights.aspx
OHCHR. (2020). Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/SRRightHealthIndex.aspx
SisterSong. (n.d.). Reproductive Justice. https://www.sistersong.net/reproductive-justice
Vance, C. (2014). Interrogating Consent. Global Dialogue on Decriminalisation, Choice and Consent.