Battle over women’s bodies

Not only have I grown up with access to education and health services, but in South Africa’s democracy I have the right to define who I am and to be an autonomous decision-maker when it comes to every aspect of my life, including my reproductive capability. I can choose to be a mother, a daughter, a lover, a nurturer or protector. This is a far cry from the roles envisaged for women by 19th century gynaecologists, who identified the “Seven Ages of Woman” as her birth as a female, her menstruation, defloration, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation and menopause, as recorded in The Women’s History of the World. What all these “ages” have in common is that they focus entirely on “the great crown and joy of a woman’s life ‘ Motherhood”. And this echoes the sentiment that the natural destiny of every woman is to be a wife and mother. While being a mother is a complex and beautiful phenomenon, as a modern, gay woman I can choose to determine and control these seven ages, change them, replace them, or even skip them. If that wasn’t the case and I subscribed to the notion of the seven ages, I would fail dismally at being a woman; because in all likelihood I will never give birth and be a biological mother or a wife in the traditional sense. But I have the ultimate freedom over my body, including choosing to love outside the norms and express my sexuality and desire in terms of another woman. Our bodies form part of our identity ‘ yet it is also our bodies that have been battlegrounds, both ideological and physical. The battle for equality is so often carried out in words, symbols, arguments, images, paradigms and ideas that we forget that our freedom to express ourselves is tangible and is often played out on and through the body itself. We should have the power and autonomy to decorate, enhance, change, heal and preserve our bodies ‘ decisions fundamental to our rights as human beings and as women. Historically, women have sought to achieve a measure of control over sex and reproduction and there existed an impressive range of devices and potions dreamt up (many of them unpleasant and painful) to prevent conception. Today, I have the choice to take the Pill to prevent an unplanned pregnancy, or to use it solely to regulate my menstrual cycle. I have the right to decide what is best for my body, my health and emotional well-being. Contraception offers so much more than protection from unwanted pregnancy. It remains a central part of the battle for the body and an issue that has helped women redefine their sexuality. There are a host of safe options available for individual women to match their specific health profiles and preferences. Barrier methods include the diaphragm, cervical cap, sponge and condom. Perhaps the most exciting evolution in barrier contraception was the female condom (femidom), which has been available since 1992. Another promising development is an improved version of the cervical cap. Softer and smoother silicone caps are replacing the original rubber ones, and soon is it believed that you will see caps with a one-way valve that releases a woman’s natural secretions, but doesn’t allow other secretions to get in. I am able to understand the more than 150 physical and emotional changes that occur during my menstrual cycle and learn about the vast nutritional treatments available to reduce post-menstrual stress, cramps and breast pain. I can adapt my diet and exercise patterns in such a way to minimise the pain and fit this cycle into my life without somehow feeling at a disadvantage. Menstruation marks the beginning of womanhood, and in times when a woman had no control over her right to reproduce this would have been a time of fear and apprehension. Now it is a stepping stone to growing up. We have access to an assortment of pads with wings, or without wings, for overnight use, even to accompany G-strings. Don’t forget grooved tampons and now there is the Mooncup, which is made from a special medical-grade, non-allergic silicone. Essentially, it is a bell-shaped menstrual cup around two inches long that is worn internally, forming a seal with your vaginal walls allowing menstrual fluid to pass into the Mooncup without leakage. It is reusable, and is even registered with the Vegan Society. Thanks to the advances in medicine and my right to access medical services, I am able to protect myself from diseases such as cervical cancer by insisting on condom use and going for regular screening tests. I am fortunate to be “visible”, my rights are protected, and I have access to health information to protect my body. But this is in stark contrast to millions of women who remain marginalised and invisible, unacceptable and inferior in many countries today. Despite progressive legislation and lobbies about the importance of women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights, the realisation of these rights remains an unattainable dream for many, not only in South Africa, but globally. An example of this is the reality that the number of women living with HIV/AIDS has been steadily increasing over the past decade. Globally, social factors stemming from gender inequalities make women particularly vulnerable to HIV infection. The threat of physical violence or loss of economic support acts as a significant barrier for women to negotiate condom use or leave relationships which they perceive to be risky. The social pressure to bear children may also affect a woman’s choice concerning the significance of pregnancy versus protection from disease. We have come far in the battle for freedom and equality and my body is far more protected than it would have been centuries ago. But this is not the end of our story. “. . . I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my walk is not yet ended,” is Nelson Mandela’s message to the world. So, sometimes hopeful, sometimes disillusioned, we continue to push the boundaries. Our battle for the body continues, but if the struggle to date is anything to go by, we will find ways to push forward for those women whose only wish is to have any measure of freedom over their bodies. l Terri M. Pearson is a freelance health journalist in Durban, South Africa. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service.

March 2006
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