Exercising Bodily Autonomy as a Young Nigerian Woman
For the last article in the month of January, Chiamaka examines some ways in which Nigerian women grasp at the straws of agency in a society that deems fit to…
●2nd March 2023
Bodily autonomy is an incredibly touchy subject for women who grow up in conservative societies, regardless of our identities. Of course, some aspects of identity such as a woman’s class or standing in society may allow for more of a handle on bodily autonomy. However, as long as a person is blocked off from accessing that agency, it stands to remain that the knowledge of autonomy may just end in a basic understanding of it. For many Nigerian women, we learnt that our bodies did not belong to us from a young age. Our bodies have always belonged to our future husbands. We were not to make any decisions without considering the thoughts of the men waiting in front of us. Meanwhile, men were pretty much encouraged to explore life and see all what it had to offer them.
This creates a sort of distortion in the way women see their agency and really, their ability to make important decisions. The patriarchal approach to raising girls stunts us from the beginning of our lives and ends up carrying well into adulthood. A woman who does not end up with a solid support system or acquires agency throughout life may never have those essential life skills. Most women do not even develop these skills, going instead from their father’s house straight into the husbands’. Many people insist that these kinds of women make better wives, because they are more malleable and less likely to argue or disagree with their husbands. The conditioning of Nigerian women to be doormats makes it increasingly difficult for us to practice autonomy in our younger years. I consider this to be anywhere from eighteen to our late twenties. Here are some ways in which Nigerian women in this age group can practice having bodily autonomy.
First, a young Nigerian woman has to be prepared to break some rules if she is to have any bodily autonomy. This is because the majority of people in her life are wildly against such occurrence and would not like the possibility of her exercising what should be a right. One way is to exercise sexual autonomy. This may be through having partners or even deliberately choosing to have none. Some women choose to explore body modifications and get them in places where their family or other inquiring eyes would be unable to see. Personal body piercings such as nipple piercings or VCH piercings are not visible to many. If a woman has grown up in a very conservative household, it is possible that even her family members do not look upon each other’s nudity. This is where the positive of the personal body piercing comes in. Tattoos can also be placed in nondescript areas, such as under the breasts.
Another way for young Nigerian women to exercise bodily autonomy is by choosing a personal healthcare professional. Unfortunately, in a country with non-subsidized and majorly privatized healthcare, it is nearly impossible for many Nigerian women to achieve this. When a woman has control of her healthcare, we are able to choose birth control or disregard it. We are also empowered to choose what kind of birth control we desire and get different testing depending on diagnoses or routine checkup. I remember being denied STI testing at my family hospital and moving to Marie Stopes to get this done instead. My mother questioned why I would seek out a hospital all the way in Surulere, but the journey is always worth it for the peace of mind. However, it is important to be aware of the privileges being financially secure awards you over other women who lack funding.
Nigerian women can exercise bodily autonomy is by choosing our spouses. In fact, this is arguably the most important way. As a result of the society we live in, this choice is snatched away from women and even underage girls. In some parts of Nigeria, young girls are forced into marriages that they do not consent to in order to pay a parent’s debt or to simply fulfill their families wishes. Many young women choose a spouse, but are then told that their choice is an unworthy candidate as a result of ethnic or status differences. The harm that comes to many women regarding exercising bodily autonomy is the reason why this topic is very important and should be a huge directive in the fight for women’s rights in this country. If a woman simply cannot choose, how is she expected to be a fully functioning member of society?