The Body In Development Speak

A woman in a black saree and white blouse faces a red wall, so that only her back is visible

It’s (already!) mid-2015: advocates, activists, development workers, policy wonks working on the ‘new development agenda’ or ‘sustainable development goals’ or whatever other configuration of words they construct for a convenient acronym for ‘development framework’ can almost see the finish line. It’s been a marathon of ‘anniversary agendas’ (Rio in 2012, Vienna in 2013, Cairo in 2014, and Beijing in 2015), of open working groups, negotiations, conferences, brainstorming sessions, and debating/weighing language choices. The ‘post-2015’ is almost here.

Where and how does SRHR sit in this ‘post-2015’ framework? It’s very likely that it will be subsumed within the larger ‘health’ goal, with some links to ‘gender equality’. Strategically, this works well. SRHR is, at the best of times, a contentious term and placing it under the right to health has made it somewhat more ‘palatable’ for some delegations and representatives. The WHO definition of health also lends itself to a broad understanding by seeing it as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’, which allows for broadening the scope of SRHR within the health framework.

And yet, this feels a bit limiting. By placing it squarely within the remit of health and health rights, it runs the risk of muting the holistic understanding and approach to sex, sexuality, pleasure, well being, and the many facets of desire, lust, passion, and interactions that underlie the policy language of ‘SRHR’. CSE (Comprehensive Sexuality Education), for example, is a key ‘ask’ of SRHR activists, and despite an effort to infuse it with a holistic understanding, approaching it from a health-centric focus imbues it with hues of ‘HIV/AIDS education’ (as it has in many contexts). Activists have also pointed out that the emphasis on ‘abstinence’ education under the guise of CSE moves CSE further into a moral framework that restricts young people from accessing information to safely exercise their autonomies and denies them their sexualities.

I sometimes marvel at how we’re able to discuss ‘SRHR issues’ without speaking directly to or about sex and sexuality. The discussions are often clinical, even when using powerful words like ‘autonomy’ and ‘bodily integrity’, overlooking the complicated discussions around lust, passion, desire and how they manifest in relationships and intersect with power and decision-making. Indeed, ‘consent’ is a crucial element of CSE, but discussions around consent have often been reduced to a sometimes simplistic framework of ‘yes means yes and no means no’. Of course, that is the bottom line and there is no space for equivocating but how consent plays out in reality is more complicated than only a verbalised ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Consenting requires not just an informed understanding of what one is consenting to, but the ability to articulate it and constantly renegotiate it with one’s partners and spaces. Consent is also about claiming one’s pleasure (and not just submitting to it) and participating in its active pursuit; and this requires the ability to negotiate power structures and a deep understanding of one’s body, one’s desires and one’s limits.

To truly move towards the realisation of SRHR for all, the frameworks through which we view SRHR must be broader. We need to understand how pleasure, desire, and relationships, in addition to discourses on ‘power’ and ‘access’ connect to ‘health’ decisions of women and young people. To address the ‘unmet need for contraception’ we do also need to understand how reluctance around or low contraceptive use is not just about a lack of access to contraceptives, or a lack of knowledge of correct usage, but also about fears of how it affects one’s sexual relationships, sexuality, and pleasure.

Within policy spaces, ‘population groups’ take on general identities: ‘women’, ‘young people’, ‘LGBT’, ‘men and boys’, etc. Policy is, by its very nature, set up to speak to generalised understandings of groups and communities, but the pitfall of this is that it invisibilises certain sub-groups. When discussing the SRHR of women, for example, programmes and interventions are targeted at women that are assumed to be sexually active (the corollary being that others are not), overlooking certain groups of women who may fall outside such parameters such as older women or widows. The still heterosexual focus of SRHR programming also overlooks the needs of lesbian, bisexual, and trans women not just in terms of access to information and services, but also in terms of how discussions around consent, pleasure, and relationships manifest.

In discussing pleasure – the ‘right to seek pleasure’ as a key aspect of one’s life and realities – throws up an interesting conundrum: is it really the place of policy and ‘development frameworks’ to come up with strategic goals and targets on ‘pleasure’? I am inclined to respond with an emphatic, ‘of course not!’. Rather, the discussion around pleasure must underpin the right to one’s bodily integrity and autonomy, the discussions around SRHR, and the framing of health and human rights. Pleasure is, after all, a core element of creating ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being.’

Pic Source: Tumblr Blog Dhrupad.