Putting Women’s Rights at the Center of the Zika Response

Since exploding in Brazil in 2015, the Zika virus has spread alarm across the Americas, prompting the World Health Organization to declare it a “public health emergency of international concern.”

When the virus first emerged, governments concentrated on controlling mosquitoes and advised women not to get pregnant—in the case of El Salvador, for two years!

The Zika virus is like no other. Spread primarily by the bite of infected mosquitoes, the virus can also be transmitted sexually, leading many experts to worry that Zika could take off as HIV/AIDS did decades ago. Zika can also be passed from an infected woman to her fetus, and has been proven to cause an array of neurological impairments, including microcephaly.

Zika highlights the inequality in our region: The virus disproportionately affects the urban and rural poor, who are more likely to live in areas with poor sanitation and open water sources, and are less likely to have access to repellant and window screens, as well as sexual and reproductive health services. As Debora Diniz, a Brazilian ethicist that leads our local partner Anis – Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, has said,

“This is an emergency of unknown women. The problem is, they were unknown before the epidemic.”

“Women and girls are confronted with difficult decisions and should be empowered with information and tools to effectively make and carry out their own decisions—not only during the Zika crisis, but 365 days-a-year.”–Giselle Carino

A truly effective Zika response means investing in empowering women to make informed reproductive choices. It also means that men share responsibility for pregnancy prevention and sexual health; that parents of children affected by Zika receive social support for their caregiving work; and that women’s partners and the broader community have knowledge and tools to support them in these life decisions. As the largest private provider of family planning services in Latin America and the Caribbean, IPPF/WHR is leading the regional response to Zika. Our early response to the spread of Zika in prominent media including The New York Times and The UK Guardian drew public attention to the needs of women and girls in light of the epidemic.

Our response is evolving as fast as the virus and includes key initiatives to help women affected by Zika by:

  • Providing urgently needed assistance to our local partners.
  • Mobilizing global emergency funding and bringing to scale the immense commitment needed to respond to an epidemic.
  • Taking on new partners in the region who are leading the response on the ground. IPPF/WHR welcomed Anis – Institute of Bioethics, Human Rights and Gender, our newest partner in Brazil, at the height of the outbreak. In August, Anis petitioned Brazil’s Supreme Court demanding the full protection of rights for women, families, and children affected by Zika. Anis called on the government to provide financial support and rehabilitation to all individuals with congenital Zika syndromes; launch a public education campaign on Zika; ensure access to contraception, including long-acting methods; and allow pregnant women with Zika the option to obtain safe and legal abortions.

“This is an emergency of unknown women. The problem is, they were unknown before the epidemic.”–Debora Diniz