The emergence and spread of the Zika virus is worrisome on many levels: the impact of global warming on the spread of infectious and mosquito-borne diseases (see “Getting Dumped On: Snowmaggedon, Women’s Health and Human Rights“); indiscriminate aerial spraying of poisonous chemicals — especially in poor regions — whether well-intended or not; and the reality that the poorest families in Brazil and other countries disproportionately bear the burdens of global warming and are disproportionately exposed to Zika virus due to living in crowded neighborhoods, reliance on public water pumps that often are surrounded by pools of standing water, and lack of adequate public health resources.
A related set of worries are products of structural gender inequalities: prohibitions on abortion in countries and US states at the same time as women are being warned not to become pregnant because of the presence of the Zika virus (see “Pregnant Bodies as Public Property“); the power of ‘rape cultures’ in which women may not be able to control access to their own sexuality and fertility (see “Fighting Rape Culture: Real Tips“); and a problematic history of public responses to viruses (such as HIV-AIDS) that may be spread through sexual contact, especially when the virus initially impacts disenfranchised or stigmatized groups.
In addition to alarm regarding the vectors of spread of the virus, there is cause for concern for the well-being of families affected by Zika virus. Here in the United States, Zika virus-bearing mosquitoes have shown up in Florida and other southern US states where many people are unable to access appropriate medical care because their state governments have refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (see “The State(s) of the Affordable Care Act“). Shocked and saddened by the pictures we are seeing in the press of babies born with microcephaly, the US’s continued refusal to sign the International Convention on the Rights of Peoples with Disabilities (see “Disabled Rights“) seems particularly indefensible at this time.
In light of the recent outbreak of the Zika virus in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights (WGNRR) and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network (LACWHN) join the voices of our feminist and women’s rights partners in admonishing regional governments’ limited public health advisories for women. In particular we denounce the calls of countries such as Colombia, Jamaica, Ecuador, and El Salvador, advising women to delay pregnancy until the virus is eradicated, and particularly the call of El Salvador for women to avoid becoming pregnant for a full two years.
Governments must recognize that when combatting the Zika virus, any public health strategy that does not have human rights, including sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) at its core, will be limited in its impact and sustainability, while also creating massive grounds for human rights violations.
As a region, Latin America and the Caribbean is characterized by: high rates of unplanned pregnancy, where upwards of 56% of pregnancies are unintended; high levels of sexual violence; limited access to contraceptives and sexual and reproductive health services; and restrictive laws on abortion, where in some cases such as El Salvador, abortion is prohibited under any circumstances and women are routinely persecuted and even criminalized on suspicion of having abortion. Moreover, women who are young, from remote or low-income communities, and/or living in other vulnerable situations, disproportionately face multiple barriers when it comes to exercising meaningful decision-making power and control over their sexual and reproductive lives. In such a context, calls for women to simply delay or avoid pregnancy are not only unrealistic but irresponsible and negligent.
The rapid spread of the Zika virus and its strong association with marked increases in microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities is in many ways new terrain, with new elements continually coming to light, demonstrating a clear need for more research. This uncertainty makes it all the more imperative for governments to undertake from the beginning a holistic, sustainable, and rights-based approach to eradicating the virus and mitigating its effects. Anything less is careless and counter to governments’ human rights commitments under regional and international human rights law.
We thus urge the governments of affected countries both in Latin America and the Caribbean as well as other regions worldwide to undertake a rights-based, reproductive justice, and sustainable development approach towards the Zika virus and any other emerging health issue. Such an approach must be holistic, while recognizing gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment as a cross-cutting priority, in keeping with governments’ agreements and commitments under the 2030 Agenda.
In practice, this approach to combatting the Zika virus must include:
- Ensuring universal access to a full range of high-quality, voluntary, and user-friendly contraceptive methods, including barrier methods such as female and male condoms, and emergency contraception, as well as comprehensive SRH information and services, including antenatal services to enable early detection of microcephaly.
- Targeting both men and women in public health awareness campaigns, especially in light of recent evidence that Zika may be sexually transmitted, recognizing that the responsibility for safer sex methods falls on both men and women and cannot be shouldered by women alone.
- Decriminalizing abortion, and removing all legal and implementation barriers to expand and ensure access to safe, comprehensive, free and high-quality procedures for pregnancy termination, free of requirements for marital or parental consent. As has been flagged by partners, in the context of the many uncertainties and increasing public fears surrounding the Zika virus, calling on women to simply not become pregnant when access to safe abortion is limited or even completely criminalized will inevitably risk driving up rates of unsafe abortion, and ensuing maternal mortality and morbidity. Moreover, restrictive and punitive abortion laws that force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy violate women’s right to be free from inhuman and cruel treatment, as noted by Human Rights Bodies.
- Supporting pregnant women in Zika-affected countries who decide to remain pregnant to be able to carry the pregnancy safely to term, including access to comprehensive pregnancy, safe delivery, pre- and post-partum care and neo-natal care services; as well as the provision of special needs therapy, health and educational services as needed for children with microcephaly.
- Systemic policy and programme changes that account for the intersections between climate change and SRHR.
- Immediate implementation of related recommendations under the Montevideo Consensus as well as targets under the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda, particularly those related to health and gender equality, in order undertake effective and holistic protection measures and help curb the spread of the virus.