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I Decide: A Lifetime of Determination
“No, not like that,” I said firmly. “I want my hair in twists. I want bows on the ends and this ribbon here.”
My mother set to work, accommodating me by using the hair ornaments I'd carefully selected from the bag. My chubby fingers gripped the bows tightly before passing them to her to use in my chosen hairstyle. I tiptoed to inspect my hair in the mirror before giving her my seal of approval. This was serious business.
“Is that how you wanted it?” my mother asked over my shoulder, looking amused.
“Yes!” I said, turning my head this way and that and grinning back happily.
Even when I was three years old, the ability to make my own decisions mattered to me. How my hair looked was important to me. (It was my head and my hair, after all.) Although seemingly inconsequential, I was making clear decisions about my body and how I wished to present myself to the world. My mother knew how important it was for me to say, "I decide."
It galls me that a concept I intuitively grasped as a child still eludes so many political leaders and policymakers. I have carried the belief in my fundamental human right to make decisions about my body throughout my lifetime. I have channeled this belief into my work on gender justice and sexual and reproductive health and rights. It is outrageous that so many people—women and girls especially—are denied the power to make informed choices about their own bodies.
A global framework of fairness and equality allows all people—including women and girls—to exercise their right to bodily integrity and autonomy. But in order for these rights to be upheld, governments must allocate sufficient energy and resources to creating and sustaining these conditions. This involves an international development paradigm that is based in gender equality, social justice, and the recognition of women’s human rights.
Sexual and gender-based violence cannot be tolerated. Globally, 1 in 3 women and girls experience violence, and up to half of all sexual assaults are committed against girls younger than 16 years old. In the Caribbean—where I am from and where I work—the incidence of rape is higher than the global average.
Somewhere along the line, the world accepted the lie that being raped or beaten is something that is intrinsic to being female. As a result, gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive public health and human rights violations worldwide. Our global culture of victim blaming and perpetrator impunity has created a world where women and girls live in fear every single day. This unjust reality is unacceptable and cannot persist unchallenged. We must advocate for a world where all women and girls can say, "I decide."
Governments must take the implementation of comprehensive sexuality education in schools seriously. Young people must be given accurate and nonjudgmental information about their bodies and sexualities. They should be taught how to prevent unplanned pregnancies and protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Adolescents need to be able to discuss, openly and honestly, the complex and sometimes confusing terrain of gender and sexuality. They must be given the tools to challenge social injustices and the opportunity to plan for their futures and work toward accomplishing their dreams. Only then can they say, "I decide."
We can no longer allow women to be denied access to high-quality and affordable health care. They should be able to easily obtain the sexual and reproductive health services that support their well-being. Women are disproportionately affected by unplanned pregnancies, so national legislation and health systems must support women’s decisions regarding when and whether to have children. Only then can they say, "I decide."
Most importantly, we must all challenge entrenched biases about sexuality and gender that plague our societies. Much of the controversy surrounding sexual and reproductive rights has its roots in idea that sexuality is inherently dirty and that we, as women, do not have the right to control our own bodies. We are in constant danger of having our sexual and reproductive choices ripped away, so we must demand a shift towards a more just model of development that recognizes that all women, men, and young people have an equal right to determine the direction of their lives.
In her own simple way, three-year-old Patrice recognized the importance of existing in the world on her own terms. That childish determination to wear my hair a certain way developed into the womanish determination to ensure everyone can say those two simple words: "I decide."
The right to make decisions about one’s life, family, body, and future is denied to millions of women in Latin America and the Caribbean. Add your name to our petition in support of their ability to say, “I Decide.”