Featured image: Marcos Freitas/Flickr, Creative Commons
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you’ve probably seen headlines about the Zika virus outbreak which began in Brazil and is now spreading to other countries in Latin America. The virus is spread through mosquito bites, and common symptoms of the disease include rash and joint pain. The disease is usually mild, and rarely requires hospital treatment.
That is, unless you’re a pregnant woman. After the outbreak in Brazil, authorities have reported numerous cases where the virus has caused severe malformalities in babies whose mothers were infected while pregnant, including microcephaly, which is a condition where the baby is born with an abnormally small head and severe brain damage. As a result several countries in the region, including Brazil, El Salvador, Jamaica, Colombia and Honduras, have urged women not to get pregnant and advised foreign pregnant women against traveling to the region until further notice. El Salvador’s Deputy Health Minister has taken the most extreme stance so far – urging women in El Salvador to postpone pregnancy until 2018.
Advising pregnant women to not travel to these countries while the outbreak is happening makes perfect sense. This is something that individuals can control – we can choose to change, postpone or cancel our travel plans to countries where the Zika virus is present, to protect our own health and that of our unborn children. But, advising women living in these countries to delay pregnancy is a whole other matter – because for most of them, decisions related to family planning and their reproductive health are not in their control. That is why such advice and recommendations are likely to have little if any real impact, unless they are also accompanied by changes in the availability and affordability of sexual and reproductive health services and contraceptives – as well as a drastic change in attitudes towards contraception use and family planning. The discussion can also not happen in a void, but must be grounded in a broader debate about the complexities and challenges related to subpar availability of family planning services and contraceptives to both women and men in Latin America.
Not only do women in Latin America lack access to sexual and reproductive health and family planning services and often have no access to contraceptives, many of them also lack the necessary knowledge to be able to control if and when they get pregnant. Latin America and Caribbean has an estimated 1. 2 million unintended pregnancies just among adolescents every year. Nearly half of sexually active young women in the region have an unmet need for contraception – making it near impossible for them to control their reproductive choices and reliably avoid an unwanted pregnancy. As the region is predominately Roman Catholic, the church’s condemnation of contraceptives seems to be quite a contradiction to the recommendation for women to delay pregnancy. So far, the statements made by government officials have also categorically ignored the role and responsibility of men in all of this – after all, it usually takes two people for a woman to get pregnant. As long as women cannot conceive a baby alone, they should not be expected to bear the responsibility of avoiding unwanted pregnancies alone either. What’s making the situation even worse is the fact that in most of these countries, abortion is either fully illegal or very hard to obtain – leading women’s rights groups to call for changes to existing abortion laws and bans, particularly in the extreme case of El Salvador where abortion is banned even in a case of fetal deformation.
Releasing reliable and factual information about the Zika virus is absolutely crucial for pregnant women to be able to take necessary precautions to minimize their risk of getting infected, but providing that information is only a tiny part of the efforts that need to be undertaken to protect women and their babies from the disease. Without the tools – sexual education, family planning services and contraceptives – telling women to “delay pregnancy”, is, in all honesty, total hypocrisy. It’s like telling a person standing in the rain to “not get wet”, and not give them an umbrella – despite the fact that you’re holding the umbrella in your hand. We know what women need to control their reproductive choices. We know what women need to decide if, when and with whom to get pregnant. But as long as these things are not made available unplanned and unwanted pregnancies will continue to happen, which should not only be considered a problem because of the Zika virus but in general. Having control over our bodies is not a matter of necessity because of the outbreak – it’s a basic human right that all women should have access to, at all times. The Zika virus is merely reminding us of the multiple devastating things that can happen when women are stripped of their basic right to control their bodies and reproductive choices.