End the global war on our bodies

Alna Dall and Nyasha Chingore*

As the world ends commemoration of the 30th anniversary of 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women this week, it is apparent that sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to have far reaching consequences, not only for survivors, but on the entire society.

To appreciate how SGBV has affected global societies and economies over the last 30 years, an understanding of how women and other vulnerable and marginalised populations including the key populations have been systematically denied their rights to bodily autonomy and integrity (BAI) is needed. Unless BAI and sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) to vulnerable populations are guaranteed, patriarchal violence will persist.

The hidden costs of SGBV
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, impacts on the development of children exposed to SGBV, or on the communities directly affected by these crimes, the far-reaching consequences of SGBV on nations and the global economy are yet to be fully appreciated.

SGBV costs governments millions, if not billions, of dollars each year. A 2014 study, Too Costly to Ignore, done by audit firm Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG) in South Africa states that SGBV costs the country between R28 billion and R43 billion a year. That is up to 1.3% 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% of the South African population. The study indicates that these estimates are considered as a partial or minimum estimate of the true costs. 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. Compounded with the extra costs that employers face in hiring replacement staff, advertising positions and losing productivity, it becomes clear how SGBV hurts the economy.

Denying BAI, breeding SGBV
Although the effects of SGBV on economies are only now being explored, efforts in ending patriarchal violence are nothing new. Yet, after decades of activism, lobbying, petitions and protest, there does not seem to be light at the end of the tunnel. 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 to 111 percent during the global Covid-19 lockdown. The pandemic showed that not enough was being done to end SGBV.

Whilst international bodies call upon governments to make more funds available tackle SGBV, few are addressing the elephant in the room: lack of the right to BAI, 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 with whom to have sexual relations.

In their 2021 study on BAI, 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? The example of having the right to have an abortion is illustrative. 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.

Clearly, 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 lack control over their bodies, and will, therefore, be at greater risk of being taken advantage of by sexual predators.

Trans-communities that have all their rights denied by some governments are often forced underground, too ashamed or scared to, for instance, 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 experience sexual violence.

Ironically, ensuring bodily autonomy and integrity and SRHR would be less costly than addressing the SGBV non-action produces. Granting access to free and safe abortions, a once-off cost, could save governments billions in providing health care for mothers with unintended pregnancies.

The list of examples that link denial of the rights to BAI to SGBV is extensive. One wonders 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 BAI and SRHR is a method of exerting power and influence – of upholding the heteronormative status quo and perpetuating the generational cycle of SGBV. It is continuing the war on people’s bodies.

African states can invest in safe havens, domestic abuse hotlines and police training, but if key populations are denied the right to choose and the tools to be truly autonomous, SGBV will remain a costly, and deadly fact of our societies.

*Alna Dall is a Communications Consultant while Nyasha Chingore is the Programmes Lead at the AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa.

By Observer