Ending the global war on our bodies
• Alna Dall and Nyasha Chingore
As we draw towards the end of the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women this week, we recognise that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to have far reaching consequences, not only for the survivor but on society as a whole.
In order to reflect on how SGBV has affected global societies and economies over the last 30 years, we must develop an understanding of how we systematically deny women, and other vulnerable and marginalised populations including the LGBTQIA+ community their rights to bodily autonomy and integrity. If we cannot grant bodily autonomy and integrity and ensure sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) to vulnerable populations, we cannot end patriarchal violence.
THE HIDDEN COSTS OF SGBV
Talking about SGBV conjures images of battered and bruised women, of monstrous rapists and broken homes. However, besides these most apparent effects it has on the physical and mental health of survivors, on the development of children exposed to SGBV, or on the communities directly affected by these crimes, we often fail to think about the far-reaching consequences of SGBV on nations and the global economy. SGBV costs governments millions, if not billions, of dollars each year.
A 2014 study, Too Costly to Ignore, done by KPMG in South Africa states that SGBV costs the country between R28 billion and R43 billion a year. That’s up to 1.3 percent of the nation’s annual GDP. To put this figure in perspective, this would be enough to pay all of the country’s child support grants for eight years, or provide national health insurance for 25 percent of the South African population. The study indicates that these estimates are considered as a partial or minimum estimate of the true costs because data for a comprehensive cost analysis is not yet available in South Africa.
So what makes SGBV so costly? The most obvious costs would be those of state-driven response services such as police, justice, social services and provision of shelters, not to mention the burden on health care services. Less apparent costs involve reduced outputs and exports due to a decline in labour as many women are prevented from working due to SGBV, be it due to injury or coercion. The study mentions that survivors have a significantly lower propensity to turn up to work on time and are less likely to stay at a job for very long. Compound this with the extra costs that employers face in hiring replacement staff, advertising positions and losing productivity, it becomes clear as to how SGBV hurts the economy.
DENYING OUR RIGHTS, A BREEDING GROUND FOR SGBV
Although the effects of SGBV on economies are only now being explored, our efforts in ending patriarchal violence is nothing new. Yet, after decades of activism, lobbying, petitions and protest, we don’t see an end in sight. A recent regional Oxfam report, The Ignored Pandemic, shows that there was a surge in the number of calls made to domestic abuse hotlines of 24- 111 percent during the global Covid-19 lockdown. Covid-19 exposed the fact that we are simply not doing enough to end SGBV.
Whilst international bodies call upon governments to make more funds available for tackling SGBV, few are addressing the elephant in the room: the right to bodily autonomy and integrity. Bodily autonomy and integrity is defined as the ability to make choices over one’s own body. This can range from deciding what to wear, to having access to contraceptives, the right to have a safe abortion or the right to choose whom you have sexual relations with. In their 2021 study on bodily autonomy and integrity, the UNFPA suggests that over half of women in 57 developing countries do not have the right to decide what happens to their bodies.
So how does this figure relate to SGBV? Let us take the example of having the right to have an abortion. Women in abusive relationships who are forced to carry unintended pregnancies to term have the added burden of another mouth to feed, which could further prevent them from leaving an abusive relationship. It doesn’t take too much effort to deduce that girls who are told what to wear and who they may or may not have sexual relationships with, will soon come to the conclusion that they are not in control of what happens to their bodies, and will therefore be at greater risk of being taken advantage of by sexual predators.
AUTONOMY AND INTEGRITY
Considering trans-communities who have all their rights denied by governments, they are often forced underground, too ashamed or scared to for instance, to seek treatment for life-threatening diseases like HIV. Furthermore, physically and mentally disabled people rarely have their bodily autonomy recognised. AS the UNFPA report states, disabled girls and boys are three times more likely to be subject to sexual violence.
Ironically, protecting bodily autonomy and integrity and SRHR would be less costly than addressing the SGBV it produces. Granting access to free and safe abortions, a once-off cost, could save the state billions in providing health care for mothers with unintended pregnancies.
The list of examples that link denial of the rights to bodily autonomy and integrity to SGBV is extensive. If we were to be truly critical of the link between bodily autonomy and integrity and SGBV, we need to question whether denying women and key populations their SRH rights is not in fact, a form of state-sanctioned violence. Depriving people especially the most vulnerable of their bodily autonomy and integrity and SRHR is a method of exerting power and influence, of upholding the heteronormative status quo and of continuing the generational cycle of SGBV. It is continuing the war on our bodies. African states can invest in safe havens, domestic abuse hotlines and police training, but if we do not give key populations the right to choose and the tools to be truly autonomous, SGBV will remain a costly, and deadly fact of our societies.
*Alna Dall and Nyasha Chingore are Communications Consultant and Programmes Lead respectively at the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa.