A Feminist Approach in Responding to the Zika Virus

Posted on February 5, 2016

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[1] 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.[2]

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;[3] 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.[4] 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.[5]

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,[6] 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,[7] 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.[8]
  • 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.[9]
  • 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.

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[1] See The Guardian (2016), Rights Groups Denounce Zika Advice to Avoid Pregnancy in Latin America; O’Neill Institute (2016), The WHO Must Include Access to Birth Control and Abortion in its Temporary Recommendations for Zika-Associated Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

[2] Liss-Schultz (2016), Pregnant, Sick with Zika – and Prohibited From Getting an Abortion, Huffington Post; Reuters (2016), El Salvador Urges Against Pregnancies Until 2018 as Zika Virus Spreads; Huffington Post (2016), Jamaica Advises Women to Delay Pregnancy Due to Zika Virus.

[3] Guttmacher Institute (2014), New Study Finds That 40% of Pregnancies Worldwide are Unintended.

[4] Center for Reproductive Rights (2014), Marginalized, Persecuted, and Imprisoned: The Effects of El Salvador’s Total Criminalization of Abortion.

[5] A/RES/70/1 (2016), Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

[6] LaMotte, Sandee (2016), Zika has Been Sexually Transmitted in Texas, CDC Confirms.

[7] The Guardian (2016), Zika Outbreak Raises Fear of Rise in Deaths from Unsafe Abortions; Varagur, Krithika (2016), Zika Virus Prompts Activists to Push for Legal Abortions in Brazil, The Huffington Post.

[8] CAT/C/PER/CO/4, para. 23; CAT/C/NIC/CO/1, para. 16; and CAT/C/CR/32/5, para. 7.

[9] ARROW (2016), Zika: A Perfect Storm of Climate Change, Disease, and SRHR.