By the end of 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) has predicted that the Zika virus will spread and infect over 4 million people internationally. As many know, Zika is particularly dangerous for women – especially if they get pregnant – because the virus causes severe birth defects and complications in newborns. Therefore, people (women) planning vacations are discouraged to travel to Zika hotspots by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States. However, the women in these countries face tremendous adversity when it comes to accessing proper healthcare that will enable them to treat or take care of themselves and their infants. Aside from the dangers that come with the spread of this disease, it raises a larger issue about reproductive rights in areas, like South and Central America, which have some of the most restrictive policies on women’s health.
The Zika virus, originally identified in Uganda and Tanzania in the 1950’s, is contracted through the bites of the Aedes species of mosquitos, and had spread to Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Since then, the largest outbreak of the virus had been detected in early 2013 when it emerged in South and Central America, with parts of the Caribbean also affected. The symptoms are fairly similar to that of dengue fever – joint pain, rashes, high fevers, and conjunctivitis (swollen, red eyes) – so it is hard to detect. While the virus is not deadly and can be treated with rest and keeping hydrated, it can cause complications for pregnant women.
These women have a higher chance of giving birth to babies with microcephaly – a birth defect where the baby’s head and brain is much smaller than average. Scientists are still unsure as to why there is a causation between the virus and birth defect; but as there is no vaccine or medication to treat the virus yet, it is difficult – particularly for pregnant women – to take preventative measures. Furthermore, it is unknown how long the effects of the virus remain in the body; women who are not yet pregnant could still be at risk of having a baby with microcephaly in the future.
The first cases of the recent epidemic was found in Brazil. The Brazilian government has done little to provide access to basic healthcare for affected women – instead discouraging them from getting pregnant until the virus subsides. The burden for carrying and spreading the disease is unfairly put on women; and with more than 4,000 people infected since last October, it seems like the government should be actively catering to its people’s health instead of restricting their right to reproduce. Mothers-to-be, who were already pregnant when Zika hit, have few resources to turn to if they are affected. Even worse, those in the lower classes – who live in less prosperous neighborhoods – are even more unlikely to receive any kind of aid. This is particularly troublesome as Zika victims are predominantly from lower socioeconomic classes and rural areas.
Similarly, the governments of El Salvador, Ecuador and Colombia, among others, have responded stating that women should avoid getting pregnant – but do little to help the already pregnant women combat the illness. Women’s rights and reproductive issues in these countries are highly controversial topics as religion and morality play a large role in society and government. A woman’s right to accessible healthcare is unheard of in many of the rural and suburban areas of South and Central America.
These governments have some of the strictest laws on abortion, barring even circumstances where the woman is a rape/incest victim or in mortal danger. The debate on reproductive rights is admittedly contentious but many of these governments go beyond restricting just abortions. In Honduras, in addition to banning abortions, they also ban many kinds of contraceptives – including the morning-after pill, which helps prevent unplanned pregnancies. In others, women have been sentenced to years in prison for homicide charges after having miscarriages. These policies, among others, place a tremendous amount of pressure on women and leave them with little room to speak for themselves.
The problem, I think, apart from access to basic healthcare, is that they lack proper sex-education. The concept of a planned pregnancy is almost foreign or unheard of in most of the rural populations. Therefore, these policies lead many women to seek alternative methods of assistance. In a 2014 analysis, almost 95% of Brazilian women, who desired an abortion, were forced to undergo dangerous, unsanitary, and occasionally illegal procedures. The culmination of poor access to healthcare, lack of education and insufficient alternatives to unplanned pregnancies, to me, show a basic disregard to women’s rights overall.
The purpose of reproductive rights go beyond whether abortions are morally justified or not. It is the government’s job to ensure that opportunities for women’s health is easily available because it seems to me that the many restrictive policies are more to subjugate women than to abide by a moral obligation. The purpose of the government is to find a happy medium that both addresses the concerns of women, provides access to basic health, and keep in line with cultural norms and values. Today, technological and medical advances allow men and women to have access to proper sex education and utilize the necessary tools to take preventative measures that don’t necessarily include abortions. Many contraceptives are made to be cheap and easily accessible; government healthcare programs or private practices can and should provide these resources.
Therefore, in order to combat Zika virus and help prevent its spread governments are going to have to step up their efforts. Zika also has the potential to spark a larger debate about women’s reproductive rights in areas of the world that are so restrictive toward women and their issues. Once society sees that the effects of Zika are long-lasting and can impact generations, they will likely be more open to discussing preventative and alternative methods of dealing with the transmission of the disease. The burden and responsibility of ensuring the containment of the disease is with the governments, and it is up to the societies to demand accountability and results from them.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”