I keep a small rock on my desktop. It’s shaped like a turtle, but its edges are sharp and jagged, and it could easily break the skin. It reminds me of the day I met a young woman in a bright pink shirt who told me about her escape from slavery.
This was several years ago, in Cambodia. My friend, Sinith, a photographer, drove us into the countryside a few hours from Phnom Penh. He wanted to stop at the base of a mountain, where workers were paid to smash big rocks into small stones. Construction requires sand and gravel, and it’s mined by hand from local mountains like this. Men wielded sledgehammers high above their heads, smacking giant boulders. Women loaded the smaller rocks into rattan baskets, which they carried to nearby trucks for transport up and down the Mekong River. Entire families spent their days among these stones; those too young or old or weak to work sat on the outskirts, caring for babies and toddlers.
I don’t know the name of the young woman in the bright pink shirt, but we talked for some time. She told me she had just returned from Malaysia, where she had worked as a maid for an older couple who had hired her under the guise of a two-year contract. When I asked whether it was a good job, she stared silently for a moment then said, “No. No sleep. I worked 24 hours.” She could never rest or take a day off—and she was afraid for her physical safety. So, somehow, she escaped. She abandoned her hopes in Malaysia and returned to this mountain where, every day, men earned $10 for cracking stone, and women earned $3 for carrying it away.
I know no further details of what the young woman endured. I hadn’t gone to the mountain expecting to hear a story of enslavement—yet it hadn’t surprised me either. Her words mirrored the accounts of women across Southeast Asia who are trapped in “jobs” as “maids” for upper-class families who treat their bodies as pawns. Google any combination of “Southeast Asia” “maid” “abuse” “murder” and/or “rape,” and a jaw-dropping archive of criminal cases appears. This month, a Malaysian state assemblyman, Paul Yong Choo Kiong, faces trial for allegedly raping his Indonesian maid. In February, the wife of a Singaporean police officer admitted starving, torturing, and killing their maid from Myanmar; the assailant pleaded guilty to 28 charges and faces dozens more in what is described as one of the most egregious cases of maid abuse in Singapore history. Last year, a Chinese resident of Singapore was sentenced to more than 11 years in jail and nine strokes of the cane for raping his maid—then assaulting two more women after he was released on bail. In 2019, a Hong Kong man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for raping his Indonesian maid just five days after she arrived in his home. In 2018, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who has a history of joking about rape, admitted to sexually assaulting his family’s maid when he was a teenager.
And yet, reports show that many young women from Asia’s poorest communities continue to pursue jobs as housemaids because they have no choice—they need to send money to their families back home. It’s a system frequently described as modern-day slavery.
The subjugation of women is a global problem that extends far beyond domestic work in Asia. “Who owns girls’ and women’s bodies?” asks Dr. Nahid Toubia, a Sudanese surgeon and women’s health rights activist. “Every day in Sudan, with all the hundreds of women, I listen to their voices, I listen to their frustrations, as they tell me their daily stories of how their bodies are not their own.”
She talks about women who cannot leave home without a brother’s permission, husbands who threaten divorce if their wives use contraception, and police who decide what women can and cannot wear in public. “All around the world,” she says, “men are in control of women’s bodies. This situation is just simply unacceptable.”
Dr. Toubia is the research adviser to “My Body is My Own,” the 2021 State of World Population report released this week by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). For the first time since its initial publication in 1978, this year’s report examines bodily autonomy, defined as “having the power and agency to make choices over our bodies and futures, without violence or coercion.” Only 55 percent of women in 57 countries studied have freedom to make their own choices about healthcare, contraception, and sex, the authors write.
While some violations of bodily autonomy—like rape—are sometimes prosecuted, many other offenses are not. The list is long: child marriage, female genital mutilation, virginity testing, forced anal testing, forced marriage, forced sterilization, marital rape, homophobic and transphobic rape, marry-your-rapist laws, honor killings, and more.
Bodily autonomy is the foundation upon which other human rights are built, according to UNFPA. “A woman who can make her own decisions about sex, contraception, and reproductive health is also likely to enjoy better health overall, own property, be gainfully employed, have more time for leisure and avoid gender-based violence.”
But we’re not there yet. “All around the world, women and girls are not being allowed to take control of their bodies or their lives,” says UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. And the past year has exacerbated the inequalities that already existed. “What was previously bad is now worse with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This I have heard time and again, through hours of interviews with health experts since the pandemic began. In many regions, lockdowns have blocked women from reaching necessary healthcare appointments. “Reproductive health clinics were not initially considered essential healthcare services,” Satyajit Pradhan of the reproductive health group Marie Stopes Nepal wrote to me last spring. Consequently, the group shuttered all operations until the government reversed its decision. Still, that didn’t solve the problem. Cops on the street didn’t allow women to pass peacefully. “The traffic police were being very aggressive with the lockdown enforcement, and many potential clients were scared of physical abuse.”
Pandemic aggression doesn’t end there, in public. When the world closed up last year, violence against women and girls increased dramatically—often in their own homes. One study in the journal Critical Sociology called gender-based violence a “twin pandemic” to COVID-19. France reported a 30 percent increase in domestic violence cases, Cyprus and Singapore reported spikes in helpline calls (30 percent and 33 percent), and Argentina reported a 25 percent hike in emergency calls for domestic violence cases.
Yet numbers don’t always tell the whole story, either. “In a lockdown, it’s really difficult for women to access the justice system, to access police, to have a report, and to go to a hospital,” says Debora Diniz, a Brazilian anthropologist, scholar, and women’s health advocate speaking about her work with the International Planned Parenthood Federation. In a lockdown, it can be difficult to discern the depth of violence that is actually happening. Plus, many of these problems are compounded by the financial strain and stress of isolation that millions have endured for more than a year.
An exceptionally difficult year for women, by most any measure. “The gender-based violence spike, women at home, women losing economic power, women being at the frontline, women not being able to access contraception…. There will be massive long-term health impacts of those converging factors,” says Terry McGovern, chair of Columbia University’s Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health.
UNFPA chose a critical time to focus on bodily autonomy.
When I look at the rock on my desk, I wonder what the young woman in the pink shirt is doing now. It’s interesting that UNFPA lists Cambodia among five countries faring the best in terms of countries with laws and regulations guaranteeing gender equity in access to reproductive health services, education, and information (along with Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, and Uruguay). But the report also notes the limitations of its own surveys and data. “No single indicator can ever capture the whole story with regard to legal and regulatory environments.”
I like to think the woman in pink is healthy and vibrant today, living a life she has chosen. I like to think that maybe something went right for her during childhood—maybe her mother taught her self-respect, maybe her father told her, “your body is your own.” And maybe that’s why she had the gumption to escape her captors in Malaysia. Maybe that’s what helped her survive. And maybe she is teaching those things to her own children now.