#16DaysOfActivism: Reproductive injustice is violence against women in digital and physical worlds

25 November 2022

This blog post is part one of our #16DaysOfActivism: Reproductive injustice is violence against women in digital and physical worlds series, to be published weekly along the #16DaysOfActivism campaign.

Every year, feminist activists and human rights defenders across the world commemorate #16DaysOfActivism, a global campaign against gender-based violence. This year will be no different. Under the theme: “UNiTE! ACTIVISM TO END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN & GIRLS!”, the global call is for everyone to be an activist and take a stand to oppose violence against women.

Reproductive justice and gender-based violence are inextricably connected. They are also no longer simply issues of the physical realm; they are core to how we want to reimagine our internet experiences. At Whose Knowledge?, our contribution to the #16DaysOfActivism campaign will be a three-part blog series reflecting on our bodily autonomy, online surveillance and data rights, and language justice for reproductive rights. Our aim is to reflect on these issues from a decolonial anti-oppressions lens, and to decenter the United States in the conversations on reproductive justice, while centering some examples from Africa and Latin America. In doing so, we celebrate the sorority of women and non-binary people from marginalized communities who fight individually and collectively for bodily autonomy and liberation.
Woman tying a green scarf, symbolising abortion rights, around another feminists arm in Zambia.
African feminist activist tying a green scarf, symbolising abortion rights, around another feminist’s arm in Zambia. Image by Señoritaleona, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Part I – Bodily autonomy: decentering the US, recentering the rest of the world

2022 was a difficult year for bodily autonomy. Feminists across the globe decried the loss of bodily autonomy and freedoms following the threat of, and subsequent reversal of, the United States Supreme Court decision in Roe vs Wade. This landmark 50-year-old court decision guaranteed women’s constitutional right to safe abortion in the United States. Decisions like this have an impact elsewhere in the world. A cursory scan of the reactions from feminists across the globe on social media, news articles, and solidarity statements can be summarized in three words; rage, hopelessness, and more rage. For many reproductive justice advocates, especially in the Global South, the threat of rolling back progress for abortion rights is something they experience every election season in the US thanks to the Global Gag Rule or the 1984 Mexico City Policy that is resurrected by every Republican president. As Planned Parenthood puts it, the policy prevents foreign organizations receiving U.S. global health assistance from “providing information, referrals, or services for legal abortion or advocating for access to abortion services in their country — even with their own money”.

Reproductive justice and women’s lives have been politicized anywhere with histories of patriarchy and colonialism; i.e. everywhere. Abortion rights have always been a bargaining chip in the political games and decisions made by powerful nations. Reinstatement of the Mexico City Policy in 2017, then its subsequent revoking in 2021, and now the 2022 overturn of Roe v Wade continues to affirm this.

There is a nexus between reproductive justice for women and people in feminine bodies, and the violence that they experience in many ways. The exercise of bodily autonomy is crucial to ending the cycle of violence against women. Women and people in feminine bodies are subjected to violence in their everyday lives in multiple ways, whether at home, work, or on the street. This violence is structurally deepened through laws, policies, and practices that restrict or criminalize access to abortion.

While there are valid fears around what the overturning of Roe v Wade means for women everywhere – especially black, brown, trans, and economically deprived women in the Global South who disproportionately die from unsafe abortion – we must collectively remember to decenter this Global North regression for our own sake, and celebrate some of the reproductive justice gains we’ve made elsewhere in the world.

Some feminist victories from Latin America and Africa

In a conversation with African feminists Dr. Ruth Nekura reminded us:

Feministas, while I understand the heartbreaking reversion of Roe v Wade, and potential trickle impact globally, I think we should refuse for America to have such power over us…of course, we have our own setbacks…but our narratives and push backs are different and we should resist being caught up in America’s drama.

The truth is despite the existence of the Global Gag Rule and all the other ways in which western political decisions affect women’s and feminist rights in the rest of the world, the Global South has been working towards progress for people seeking abortion care.

In Latin America, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Argentina found the time to legalize abortion, which was followed by Mexico and Colombia. Legal, safe and free abortion in the health system is granted to women and people that may become pregnant in Argentina, Cuba, and Uruguay. In a region where the Catholic and Evangelical churches are quite influential in politics, feminist campaigners are fighting for more progressive legislation and stopping new restrictive proposals at the same time.

At the margins of state and medical systems, we find some of the most powerful experiences of feminist self-organizing and collective care: the autonomous networks of support and solidarity for women seeking abortions. Networks like “Las Comadres” in Ecuador support women in various ways in the process of getting safer abortions, including providing adequate information and monitoring abortions. They are very active in fighting against state criminalization of abortion too. 

A portrait image of a femme-presenting person and a participant in International Women's Day in Tandil in 2022.
Feminist campaigners from across Latin America have been fighting for more progressive abortion legislation. Image by Ezarate, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

In Kenya, three months before Roe v Wade was overturned, the High Court reaffirmed women’s right to abortion and provided extra protections for women seeking abortion care. Specifically, the court emphasized constitutional protections for persons seeking abortion care, and the health care workers providing the same ruling that it is illegal to arrest them for providing abortion care.  

In Africa, more progress has been made on abortion rights looks in the five countries in Africa (Zambia, Cape Verde, Mozambique, South Africa, and Tunisia) with relatively liberal abortion laws including permission to terminate pregnancy for social and economic grounds, such as in Zambia.

For the last 19 years, the legal protection and advocacy for the sexual and reproductive health rights of African women and girls have had the backing of the Maputo Protocol (Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa). Despite reservations (from states who have refused to comply) it remains one of the most potent human rights tools to advocate for and protect the sexual reproductive health and rights of women and girls across the continent.

These are but some of the feminist victories and examples of hope and safety from Latin America and Africa, and important South-South learnings for feminists everywhere fighting for the liberation of our bodies. Collectively, the call for us has been to decenter the US so that their regression doesn’t trickle down to us – at least in contexts where we are already a stride ahead. We must decolonize our movements for reproductive rights and keep sharing our stories and learnings from defending women’s reproductive rights across the globe, so that we build a global movement independent of the political tides of the US and beyond.

Stay tuned for the second part of the #16DaysOfActivism: Reproductive injustice is violence against women in digital and physical worlds series, with reflections on datafication, online surveillance and criminalization, to be published next week!

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