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“My body is my own. How many women and girls can freely make that claim?” – @UNFPA
In April 2021, the United Nations noted that nearly half the female population from 57 developing countries do not have autonomy over their bodies and future, covering healthcare, contraception and sex.
The report noted that 46 per cent of Nigerian women, aged 15 to 49 years, were able to make their own decisions regarding health care, contraception and sex with their husbands or partners.
Document Women tackles bodily autonomy using Britney Spears’ conservatorship to show why we urgently need to protect women’s rights.
For 13 years, Britney Spears was subject to the whims of an exploitative family. Her father, Jamie Spears, controlled her finances and many other aspects of her life after the conservatorship came to be in 2008 following a public mental health crisis.
What is a conservatorship?
“A conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship that generally refers to the designation of a conservator by a court to manage the financial and personal affairs of an incapacitated or incompetent individual, minor, or older adult with limited capacity.”
In the years under the conservatorship, Britney was stripped of her autonomy; financial and bodily. The conservatorship had power over not only her finances but personal aspects of her life too, like her reproductive health.
She was barred from making certain personal decisions while others were imposed on her. They controlled her visits with her teenage sons, often leveraging her access to them to manipulate her, and also determined whether she could remarry.
She told a court in June 2021, “I want to be able to get married and have a baby. I was told right now in the conservatorship I am not able to get married and have a baby.” She also claimed the conservators wouldn’t let her have her birth control, an IUD, removed and that she was drugged with lithium into compliance on several occasions.
A documentary made by The New York Times, “Framing Britney Spears” alleged that the singer’s phone and bedroom had been bugged by security staff working for her father. In her court appearance in June, the singer described her situation as an abusive one that left her traumatised.
However, Britney is not the first celebrity to have been under a conservatorship or have her bodily autonomy stripped. Other stars, seen as “troubled” or otherwise incapable of making choices for themselves, have also been placed under legal guardianship such as Amanda Bynes and actress Lindsay Lohan.
Following her bipolar disorder diagnosis and history of drug abuse, Amanda Bynes was placed in a legal conservatorship with her mother as its overseer. In 2020, she took to social media to explain her situation, expressing her desire for her conservatorship to end. Under Bynes’ conservatorship, she can not marry her fiancé or leave the treatment centre she stays in. Her attempts at ending her conservatorship so far have proved futile, with a judge extending it through 2020.
While conservatorships may be beneficial in certain unique cases like that of Brian Wilson, a former member of the Beach Boys, Britney’s conservatorship was an authoritarian arrangement that stripped her of her rights and enabled those entrusted with her care to take advantage of her.
In the United States, there are about 1.3 million active guardianship or conservatorship cases with guardians and conservators controlling at least $50 billion in assets, according to the US Department of Justice.
Britney Spears’ conservatorship highlights the role of guardianship law in women’s oppression and the weaponisation of disability to subjugate people, women especially.
In Nigeria, where child marriage is a constantly held conversation, many young women and girls have been deprived of the right to their bodies, access to education and healthcare, solely because of their gender.
The patriarchal climate of the Nigerian society, as well as lapses in legislation on women’s rights, continue to deny women access to services, facilities and platforms. Bodily autonomy would give women control over their body and would would mean the right to legal and safe abortions, which is illegal in Nigeria.
It would mean freedom from female genital mutilation, the right to receive
education about sexually transmitted diseases and the right to protection
from sexual offences.
Gender inequality remains the most common snag to bodily autonomy. Only when women have complete control over their bodies can they benefit from rights and opportunities in all other areas of their lives, like education, family life, careers and businesses or governance.