The ‘World Health Organisation’ (WHO) have just days ago announced that the Zika virus is now a global emergency. Margaret Chan, the director general, held a press conference on Monday.
I am now declaring that the recent cluster of microcephaly and other neurological abnormalities reported in Latin America following a similar cluster in French Polynesia in 2014 constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.
The Zika Virus is spread via mosquitoes and is currently being found predominantly in South America, although it has recently spread further afield. At the moment, there is a lot of speculation as to exactly what is happening. Common symptoms of the virus are rashes and joint pains. However, it is being widely discussed that if a pregnant woman is infected with the virus, her unborn child will then develop something called microcephaly, a type of brain damage. Normally in Brazil, just 150 cases of microcephaly are reported each year. However, since October 2015 it is now investigating nearly 4,000.
The Zika Virus has been a main topic of debate on all news channels recently, and there has been much coverage of it online and on social media. However, I’m yet to see any specific reporting of the effects and repercussions that this will have on female lives. This is a massive issue for women and women’s rights.
More than 1 million people have been infected with the Zika Virus in Brazil, and the NY Times have reported that in Colombia alone over 2100 pregnant women are now infected (this number having doubled in a week). As a result of this, several authorities of various South American countries have now urged women to avoid getting pregnant until further notice. With El Salvador going as far as to discourage pregnancies until 2018.
How is it exactly that these authorities expect women to be able to do this? Religion in in South America is predominantly Roman Catholic; although perhaps a comfort in these times, presents increasing challenges for women. Birth control is practically non-existent in these countries, and abortion is illegal.
For many women in South America being told ‘don’t get pregnant’ just is not feasible advice. They are not socially able to take this advice on board, they don’t have the facilities, the education or information, nor the money to make the advice a reality. This TIME article references the fact that 50% of births in Latin America are unplanned. These figures really put into perspective how hypocritical and ludicrous it is of authorities to simply say ‘don’t get pregnant’ and furthermore expect this statement to be the end of that discussion.
Even if, as a last resort, women attempted abstinence as a precaution, sexual violence is so pervasive that many women may become pregnant against their will. A WHO study (which can be found here) shows that the Americas have a very high percentage of sexual violence cases in the world, with over 36%. These figures are exactly the things that the governments of these countries should be taking into consideration when attempting to help these women.
We have to look at the social and cultural infrastructure and institutional gender politics that is in place within these countries in order to help these women and halt the spread of the Zika virus. The advice that is currently being publicised will not be good long-term. Where the only option is to give birth to and raise a disabled child in unideal conditions, we could end up with a potential rise in deaths from illegal abortions, by women who feel that they have no other choice.