It may take two to tango, but governments, religious leaders, and health officials seem to feel that containing Zika is a one-person dance.
The beginning of 2016 brought with it a flood of global attention to the mosquito-transmitted virus that is rapidly spreading throughout the Americas. While the full scale of the disease’s damage remains unclear, focus has rested on infected pregnant women, who are at risk of passing on infant microcephaly, a condition that causes the skull of an infant to be unnaturally small, leading to defects in brain development.
Consequently, women are being framed as both the primary victims of Zika and its lonely combatants. Solutions provided by governments and health officials ask women to ward off Zika with weapons to which they have no access. Strategies that can only be implemented with the assistance of outside resources and male cooperation go unmentioned. Instead, women are facing restricted abortion, limited access to contraceptives, a void of economic or material support from their governments, and a narrative that implies that preventing pregnancy is a solo activity. This orientation is only furthering the harm caused by Zika.
As news of this latest outbreak came to light, one of highest risk countries, El Salvador, offered a recommendation to its female citizens: don’t get pregnant. Many obstacles exist in the path of women who would seek to follow this deceptively simple request. El Salvador is a country that offers little in the way of sexual education. Girls under 18 need parental permission to access contraceptives, which are often low in stock. Gang warfare and machismo culture lead to high rates of sexual violence. Last year, five sexual crimes against girls under the age of 18 were reported to the national police every day.1 Still, the government asked women of a “fertile age” to take steps to avoid pregnancy until 2018. The governments of Brazil and other at-risk countries followed suit, though recommending smaller time frames. It seems these governments have no concept that for many women, whether or not they become pregnant is a matter over which they have little control.
Adding to the problematic language used by governments, Pope Francis was lauded for his remarks that seemingly changed the Church’s stance toward birth control in the face of Zika—though all he truly said was that, compared to abortion, the use of contraceptives was not an “absolute evil,” a remark that shouldn’t earn him a place on Planned Parenthood’s honoree list. The CDC recommended that pregnant women avoid travel to the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics, adding that if a pregnant woman’s partner attended the games, the woman should “either use condoms or abstain from sex for the duration of [their] pregnancy.” The language used by these parties squarely places preventative responsibility on women’s shoulders and offers recommendations that are often impossible to follow. By June 2016, there were a reported 12,000 pregnant women with Zika in Colombia alone. For these and the thousands of other infected women, options are incredibly more limited.
Of the 53 countries currently under a CDC travel warning for Zika, only four – Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guyana, and French Guiana – permit legal abortion without qualification. Other countries’ rules vary, with some permitting abortion in the case of rape or danger to the mother. Mexico, Colombia, and Panama are the only countries that allow abortion due to a fetal impairment. El Salvador, the very country that told women to avoid pregnancy, does not allow abortion under any circumstance. The gravity of this law is plain—women who have obtained abortions, or even suffered miscarriages, have faced up to 40 years in prison. The lawyer for one of these convicted women has characterized El Salvador’s law as a “witch hunt against poor women.”2 Brazil is even drafting a new legislation that would increase the prison sentence for women who obtain abortions due to infant microcephaly to 4.5 years, and put the doctors who performed the abortion behind bars for 15.
Statistics on contraception prove equally grim. The Kaiser Family Foundation’s report on access to abortion and contraceptives in the region describe a range of access to modern contraceptives—in Costa Rica, 75.7 percent of women have access, while in Haiti, access drops to 33.6 percent. The associate director of global health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation, Josh Michaud, noted that the contraception statistic may “mask what are large disparities between rural and urban areas and across different income classes. Poor rural women have the least access to contraception.”3
Other solutions offered by health organizations and governments are weak. One look at an image of a Brazilian slum is enough to know that the government urging citizens to avoid the build-up of waste, trash, and still water, all ideal breeding grounds for mosquitos, is laughable. Another suggestion, that pregnant women keep to rooms with air conditioning, is even less feasible for women with limited incomes. In 2015, only 13 percent of Mexican households had air conditioning.
As the virus travels northward, Latin American women no longer bear this pressure alone. The United States has already seen multiple cases of pregnant women infected with Zika, at least one of which has resulted in a child born with severe microcephaly. Some of these women have opted to abort their pregnancies. By December 2016, over 4,300 cases of Zika had been reported in the US, 38 of which were transmitted sexually.
In Southern US states, women with increasingly obstructed access to birth control and abortion options may be left without the means to prevent pregnancy in the face of the virus or terminate their pregnancies should they learn of the potential severe brain defects, which can lead to still-births or a lifelong debilitating disability for their child. American women’s legal right to abortion, and their access to contraceptives, remain under attack. Zika may have prompted the Pope to budge on birth control, but politicians in Louisiana, Texas, and Florida do not seem likely to follow suit.
Women on the Web, a Dutch “digital community of women who have had abortions and individuals and organizations that support abortion rights,” is responding to the Zika-fueled abortion need by providing free medical abortion pills to pregnant women infected with Zika.4 Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, the founder and director of the organization, reported an influx of messages from women in Zika-affected regions begging her for abortion pills. In response, the organization has started offering free consultative and medical services to eligible women with the virus. In an interview with Buzzfeed Health, Dr. Gomperts said that “after the news about Zika and the connection with microcephaly, we noticed there were increased consultations from affected countries…It’s a public health emergency and finances should never be an obstacle to prevent an unwanted, risky pregnancy.” The abortion medication is only sent to countries where abortion is not entirely illegal, and is effective in ending pregnancies up to nine weeks along.
Zika is being challenged by women in other ways as well. One Brazilian woman is literally dumping buckets of mutated male mosquitos out of her car window in order to decrease the population of Zika-carrying insects. In her must-read account of the landscape of Zika in Brazil, journalist Stephanie Nolan’s interviewees were 90 percent women—researchers, doctors, and victims—who are speaking out and taking action on Zika.
Zika is not leaving the public conscious, or travel warnings list, anytime soon. New infections and studies occur daily and concern is only growing. Now is the time to strive for a more evolved approach to our language and our solutions. In addition to the ongoing effort to create a vaccine and a cure, time and money is needed to provide citizens with contraceptives and other family planning resources. In addition to warning women of the risks associated with pregnancy in a Zika region, there must be a grassroots campaign against sexual assault, as well as a crackdown in punishment. Women are stepping up to fight Zika, but access to contraceptives, abortion laws, language choices, and economic barriers to health are all single strands in the tangled web of the struggle for women’s rights. We must strive for a more evolved approach to our language, and our solutions, if we want to make it through this health emergency with the least harm done.
- Indicadores de Violencia Sexual. Ormusa [online] (2016). http://observatoriodeviolencia.ormusa.org/violenciasexual.php.
- Guevara-Rosas, E. El Salvador and ‘Las 17.’ The New York Times [online] (March 2, 2015). http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/03/opinion/el-salvador-and-las-17.html?_r=1.
- Chart: access to contraception and abortion in zika-affected countries. NPR [online] (February 11, 2016). http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/02/11/465614065/chart-access-to-contraception-and-abortion-in-zika-affected-countries.
- Women on Web [online]. https://www.womenonweb.org/.