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Gender-based Violence and Sexual Rights: Intersecting Forces in Women’s Lives
The 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women kicked off last week in New York. Its focus is on the elimination of violence against women and girls. Nine of the 45 countries that comprise the commission, tasked with negotiating an agreed conclusion document, hail from Latin America and the Caribbean. Yet every country in the region (and the world) has a stake in this major event.
Gender-based violence (GBV) remains an all too pervasive reality for women and girls in the region, regardless of religion, cultural context, or socioeconomic status. While the roots of such violence are vast and complicated, the impacts are equally immense and wide reaching. In particular, GBV is linked to sexual and reproductive health. Although it is difficult to draw a direct, causal relationship between the two, the issues are closely woven together to form an important backdrop for the lives of women and girls in the region.
Experiencing violence can set in motion a pattern of poor reproductive health that is hard to undo. Worldwide, studies show that women who report abuse by an intimate partner are also more likely to report poor general health, including reproductive health. Women experiencing violence are also more likely to report depression. In Latin America in particular, with only a handful of exceptions, national-level studies show that women experiencing physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner are also more likely to have unwanted or unintended pregnancies. Women experiencing abuse also report higher incidents of miscarriage and induced abortion.
Violence during pregnancy is also a concern. Though most women who report experiencing violence during pregnancy said they were already experiencing such violence, some women report that abuse started during pregnancy. For example, in Brazil, approximately 50% of women who said they had been abused while pregnant said it started during pregnancy. This underscores the need to integrate gender-based violence screening and referrals within reproductive health care services.
Although early and forced marriage – considered by advocates to be a harmful practice and a form of GBV – is generally less common in Latin America than it is in other places, the practice does exist. Early and forced marriage is linked to forced sexual initiation, as well as early childbearing, and the result is increased risk for pregnancy-related complications.
Women and girls experiencing GBV may not seek reproductive health services due to fear of having to disclose incidents of violence to officials. Survivors of abuse, especially sexual abuse, also face shame and stigma, or may be blamed for what they have endured. All of these serve as deterrents, increasing the likelihood that reproductive health complications will occur.
Consider this: women in resource-poor settings – especially women who are impoverished, young, displaced, indigenous, HIV positive, living with disabilities, or sex workers – already face countless barriers to accessing health services. When they are able to access services, they do so under constraints on time and funds. It is absolutely critical that their full range of sexual and reproductive health needs – such as family planning, HIV testing and counseling, and GBV screening and counseling – be met within a continuum of care.
Women who face unwanted pregnancy due to sexual violence need access to safe abortion services. Yet the shame of enduring sexual violence, coupled with the stigma of abortion, drive many women to seek unsafe abortions. Latin America currently has the highest proportion of unsafe abortions in the world, where an estimated 95% of the abortions obtained are deemed unsafe. The region is also home to the world’s most restrictive abortion laws – such as in Chile and El Salvador where abortion is banned under every circumstance. Amid restrictive reproductive health policies and extremely high rates of sexual violence and assault, women are too often caught in the crosshairs.
Gender-based violence persists for a variety of complex reasons, but stems from fundamental inequality between men and women. The notion that women are less valuable or deserve fewer rights gives way to restrictive policies and cultural stigma that prevent women from exercising their sexual and reproductive rights. Ultimately, having control over our own bodies, and the ability to access the information and services that allow us to make informed choices about our reproductive futures, is about reclaiming the rights – and power – that women deserve. This is at the heart of understanding and undoing gender-based violence.