Sexual and bodily rights as human rights in the Middle East and North Africa a workshop report: women for women's human rights (wwhr) - new ways & mediterranean academy of diplomatic studies may 29-june 1, 2003, Malta
A regional workshop on ‘Sexual and Bodily Rights as Human Rights in the Middle East and North Africa’ was held in Malta from May 29 to June 1, 2003. The workshop was co-organized by Women for Women’s Human Rights – New Ways, Istanbul, Turkey and Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, Malta. Twenty-two representatives of NGOs from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan and the USA participated.
Workshop discussions clearly revealed that women's lack of control over their own bodies and sexuality is the root of a wide range of women’s human rights violations in the region, and taboos around women’s sexuality serve to maintain the structures, which support these violations. The patriarchal notion that women’s bodies and sexuality belong not to themselves, but to their families and society, is reflected not only in customary practices, but is also sanctioned by the penal and civil codes in all of the countries in the region.
The meeting aimed to explore themes of sexuality and gender and issues around sexual and bodily rights, and to develop national, regional and international strategies for overcoming related human rights violations in the region with reference to law and social and political practices Within this framework participants discussed a wide array of subjects in moderated sessions and had presentations by resource people. Session topics included sexuality and gender identity; sexuality and sexual health; sexuality and comparative penal law; sexual rights in international documents; and advocacy and lobbying on sexual and bodily rights on national, regional and international levels. Issues around sexual rights, sexual health and education, sexual violence and adolescent sexuality were explored in depth in the contexts of laws, social practices, taboos and emerging trends. Over the course of the workshop it became evident that important progress in the arena of sexual and bodily rights as human rights has occurred in the region over the last few years. Participants were encouraged and inspired by evidence of growing interest, awareness and openness concerning sexuality as a human rights issue, and by the rapidly expanding amount of work being done in the region on this subject.
However, despite the many positive changes, reports by participants confirmed that sexuality for the most part still remains a taboo subject, and violations of sexual and bodily rights in all forms are widespread and ongoing in the region. Specific areas of concern discussed in the workshop included marital rape, early marriages, temporary marriages, sexual orientation, premarital and extramarital sexuality, honor crimes, female genital mutilation (FGM), unmarried mothers, adolescent sexuality, unwanted pregnancies and safe abortion, sexuality in education and health services. Once again, it was reaffirmed that sexual autonomy and bodily rights lie at the core of human rights, and notions of equality and empowerment can not be applied to daily life unless sexual and bodily rights are fully realized.
Law, especially civil codes, penal codes and personal status codes, emerged as a central point of discussion, with a clear imperative for legal reform from a holistic perspective. When working to change laws and policies, the underlying philosophy and overarching perspective of the law should be taken into consideration and proposed changes should aim for comprehensive reform to the extent that it is possible. The role of penal codes regarding sexual and bodily rights, which has only recently been looked at, appears to be crucial, and several countries including Egypt, Turkey, Morocco and Jordan have already launched efforts at penal code reforms and activists and law-makers in other countries in the region are in process of developing strategies to reform the penal codes. The ever persistent quandary of whether legal change actual can transform social practices was also discussed in depth.
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