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From Academia to Public Policy: Bringing 'Bodily Integrity' into the Picture » Women's Courage

From Academia to Public Policy: Bringing 'Bodily Integrity' into the Picture

March 3rd, 2011 by csendax Leave a reply »

Date: March 3, 2011

To: Equality NOW

From: Cordelia Sendax, B.S., Science, Technology and Society ‘13, Stanford University

Dear Equality NOW,

I am a sophomore at Stanford University who has spent the past three months studying global women’s health and researching cultural practices that specifically violate a woman’s right to bodily integrity. I have focused my research on sex tourism, forced-feeding, nutritional taboos and the practice of wife inheritance.  I have found that there is a vast disparity between the rhetoric employed in academic circles to discuss the inherent humanitarian wrongs of these practices and the rhetoric employed by NGOs and independent organizations focusing on ending abuse against women.  I strongly believe that bringing the rhetoric of ‘bodily integrity’ into the arena of women’s rights advocacy and framing this violation in the context of cultural practices will have vast implications for reducing and eventually, abolishing abuse against women across the world.

I am writing to Equality NOW, as I have researched your many success stories and believe strongly in the work you are doing to stop rape, domestic violence, trafficking of women, female genital mutilation and to promote equal access for women to economic and political opportunity.  Most importantly, I am choosing to share with your organization in particular my concerns with the current lack of emphasis on the right to ‘bodily integrity,’ for I see your organization as a leader in the gender equality movement with great influence over other independent organizations working on similar efforts.


The right to ‘bodily integrity’ is the right to the ownership of one’s own body and ability to determine what happens to it, how it happens, and why it happens (1.)  While the term ‘bodily integrity’ often creeps up in discussions of bioethics and policy debates in the U.S. and in Europe, the term is rarely used in non-scholarly discourse to characterize the types of abuses the majority of women are experiencing daily in developing countries, such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Mauritania.  Yet, there is not a more vivid and compelling term to aptly and saliently articulate the humanitarian wrongs women experience daily in developing countries than violations of ‘bodily integrity.’

The 13-year-old Cambodian girl who sleeps with over fifteen men a day, develops HIV and drops out of school, all because she has no other options than for her body to take on the responsibility of providing for herself and her family (2.)  The 9-year-old Mauritanian girl who is forced-feed a diet of over 16,000 calories to prepare her for child-marriage, putting her at risk for heart disease and death (3.)  The pregnant Ethiopian girl, iron deficient and stunted due to traditional nutritional taboos that restrict her from receiving the necessary nutrition to avoid maternal mortality (4.)  And finally, the Eastern Kenyan widow whom social custom obligates to marry and continually sleep with a male relative of her deceased husband who will eventually infest her with HIV/AIDS (5.)

These four girls, while victims to a variety of cultural practices, ranging from the modern practice of sex tourism, an offshoot of the tourism industry, to the historic practice of force-feeding that dates back to pre-colonial nomadic times, are all tied together by their lose of their ownership over their own body through involvement in these cultural practices.

Cultural practices (such as, sex tourism, forced-feeding, nutritional taboos and wife inheritance) that violate a woman’s right to ‘bodily integrity’ share these commonalities:

1. All of these cultural practices possess the intrinsic quality of female submission and realization of male fantasy.  Through these practices, young girls and women are deprived of their command over their own physical existence, which renders them vulnerable and accessible to being molded into the dominant male ideal, whether that is being sexually complacent or morbidly obese.  These practices deprive females the ability to sustain their bodies’ basic needs and to control how they are used and in what activities they engage.  In this way, the ‘body’ becomes a symbol of the female’s self-determination.  Violating her right to ‘bodily integrity’ is tantamount to violating her right to self-determination.  And thus, customs that violate bodily integrity are a primary impediment to females becoming educated community leaders and must be urgently addressed.

2. Cultural practices that violate ‘bodily integrity’ pose significant health risks, such as HIV/AIDS transmission in the case of wife inheritance, heart disease with forced-feeding and anemia with nutritional taboos.  These health risks take center stage over the more fundamental risk to the involved women’s right to bodily integrity, which should be sufficient justification to warrant ending these practices.  Thus, the attention these practices get from governments and NGOs often focus on the second-order offenses, the prominent health risks, in their advocacy efforts.  However, without addressing the first-order offense, the violation of the sanctity of a woman’s right to bodily integrity, cultural practices such as wife inheritance that are on the decline will only reemerge in the form of similar practices, such as sex tourism, that are adaptations to the current social, cultural and economic circumstances of the present time.

3. Cultural practices that violate ‘bodily integrity’ reflect a lack of accessible resources on health and sexual education, specifically, information on the human body, its nutritional needs, its physical limitations and the sole claim of individual to her own body.  Most victims of these cultural practices are completely unaware of both the health risks of the practices and that what happens to their bodies is their own decision, not that of their community leaders, fathers, future husbands, nor their culture to decide.


1. Equality NOW should develop an umbrella advocacy program that ties together cultural practices indigent to different areas under the common mission to stop violations of ‘bodily integrity.’  Equality NOW has made tremendous strides with its programs that focus on eradicating FGM.  Equality NOW should use this program as model off which to base its development of this umbrella program.  However, this program would not focus on ending a specific instance of female abuse, but a specific nature of female abuse.  By raising funds and gaining public support for a program founded solely on the need to protect a woman’s right to bodily integrity, Equality NOW will lead the initiative in drawing ‘bodily integrity’ into the common rhetoric of social activism.

2. Equality NOW should focus on additional education efforts by enacting complementary educational programs to its well-established campaigns, such as its campaign against sex trafficking.  These complementary programs should include two components: a focus on providing public information to governments and policy-makers on how the specific instances of human rights violations threaten a woman’s ownership over her body and a focus on creating educational programs within developing countries that provide public access to sexual and general health education in regions where these cultural practices are most prevalent.


If Equality NOW makes a commitment to developing these two initiatives, I strongly believe that Equality NOW will catalyze the movement of the emphasis on ‘bodily integrity’ from the academic arena into the public and social sectors.   If the umbrella program gains public prominence and manages to grasp the attention of national governments, this program could compel policy-makers and governments to centralize the rhetoric of ‘bodily integrity’ in legislation.  Furthermore, the complementary educational programs could have a huge impact on helping women in these developing countries realize their right to ownership over their own bodies, which might compel women to act out against these practices and become part of the solution themselves.   Additionally, these educational programs will provide policy-makers, activists and general interested parties with a rhetorical framework that has potential to effectively transform concept into action at the intersection of health and women’s rights.


1. http://whr1998.tripod.com/documents/icclbodily.html

2. Jeffrey, L. A. 2002. Sex and Borders: Gender, National Identity, and Prostitution Policy in Thailand. UBC Press, Vancouver, Canada.

3. Haworth, Abigail. “Forced to Be Fat.” Marie Claire. 2010. http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/international/forcefeeding-in-mauritania.

4. C.E. Onuorah. “Food Taboos and Their Nutritional Implications on Developing Nations like Nigeria a Review.” Nutrition and Food Science. 2003.

5. http://www.kenya-information-guide.com/luo-tribe.html


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