Zika demands WHO leadership on women’s rights
February 5, 2016
In the wake of an unparalleled spread of the Zika virus in the Americas, the World Health Organization (WHO) has sounded the alarm, declaring the outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.”
This is only the fourth time that such a declaration has been made for any disease (H1N1 influenza, polio, and Ebola were the others), and the attention is rightfully placed: WHO has predicted that four million people will be infected with the virus in the next year alone.
The explosive spread of the Zika virus has been accompanied by a similarly unprecedented increase in babies born with brain damage (a condition called microcephaly). It is a link not yet scientifically proven but now undeniable. Microcephaly is causing immense upheaval and fear in impoverished areas such as Recife, Brazil as doctors, national authorities, and mothers grapple to understand the potential implications of this crisis.
While the world focuses its attention on the latest unfolding public health disaster, this is a decisive moment for the WHO after its abysmal response to the Ebola epidemic. As the organization fights for its reputation, it must heed the lessons of the past and immediately marshal international resources and action.
As part of the quest to restore its standing, WHO has a responsibility to demonstrate its leadership on women’s reproductive rights through its response to Zika. Pregnant women have been advised not to travel to Zika-affected areas and have been warned not to attend the Olympics in Brazil later this year. Most troubling, however, has been the recommendation from governments in several Latin American countries that women refrain from becoming pregnant.
This irresponsible and unrealistic proposal highlights, yet again, the impossible situations women face when governments assert authority over their bodies. For women anywhere, preventing pregnancy is not as simple as it may sound. For Latin American women, it is even harder: the region has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.
In El Salvador, where the government has announced that women should delay becoming pregnant until 2018, abortion is illegal in all circumstances, and women are being put in prison if authorities merely suspect that they have terminated their pregnancies. In the world’s largest Roman Catholic country, Brazil, the top health official confirmed that the government intends to maintain its strict ban on abortion.
In a region dominated by conservative cultural norms, women also lack access to contraception, wiping out or significantly limiting their autonomy in sexual relationships. Unfolding evidence of the sexual transmission of the Zika virus only further emphasizes how important it is for women not only to be informed about sexual and reproductive health and rights but also to be given the full resources they need to make decisions accordingly and to act on them.
Nearly 10 million women have an unmet need for contraceptives in Latin America. A recent study of Zika-affected countries showed that in eight of the nine countries with severe abortion restrictions, the use of modern contraceptives is below 70 percent. Three of those countries have a contraceptive prevalence rate of below 50 percent. Most women who have no access to contraceptives are poor and live in rural areas—the same women who are most at risk of contracting Zika.
Young women face some of the greatest challenges in the region in relation to contraception. Latin America accounts for nearly 20 percent of all adolescent births globally. El Salvador has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Latin America, with draconian abortion restrictions, limited sex education, and barriers that impede access to contraception.
Inevitably, as women contend with the impact of the Zika virus on fetal development, many will feel compelled to turn to unsafe abortions performed by poorly trained providers. This already has devastating effects in the region: the latest figures show that in 2008, 95 percent of abortions performed in Latin America and the Caribbean were unsafe.
A group of women’s rights activists and lawyers in Brazil have petitioned the country’s Supreme Court to waive its abortion restrictions in the face of the emergency. The Zika virus has the potential to force a much-needed public debate on abortion rights as the scourge of Rubella did in the 1960s in the United States.
However, more than debate is needed now. As governments in Latin America vow to win the war on Zika, the burden is being shifting entirely to women. In the name of disease prevention, women’s rights are being further curtailed, and lives are being put at serious risk.
The challenge is only becoming greater as climate change renders us powerless to protect ourselves from the spread of mosquitoes. The world cannot hold out for a vaccine.
The World Health Organization has long been a world leader in advocating that access to safe and timely abortion is both a woman’s right and a public health imperative. The global body has argued for the removal of any barrier that denies women this human right. In its moment of truth, WHO must mobilize a global response to Zika that confronts outdated and dangerous views about women’s reproductive health. As governments are turning to the organization for direction, it is time for WHO’s leadership to speak definitively and loudly. Along with much needed anti-mosquito measures, this global health emergency must be fought with unfettered access to contraception and safe abortion.
Advancing women’s reproductive rights may be the best way to win this war.