Sexist rhetoric around Zika virus is unproductive

By Sarah Stubbs

As of Feb. 9, there have been 35 cases of the Zika virus confirmed in the United States. Most recently, a woman in Cleveland who just returned from Haiti has contracted the virus.

In South and Central America, though, Zika is widespread – infecting up to 1.5 million people in Brazil alone, according to a New York Times article.

The World Health Organization has declared Zika to be a global health emergency. The virus, according to the Center for Disease Control, is transmitted by mosquitos or sexual contact.

For most people, symptoms of the disease are much like the flu. These mild symptoms go away in about a week. However, for pregnant women or women who will soon become pregnant, Zika is much more serious. Experts are finding that Zika is linked to microcephaly, a condition that causes babies to have small heads and deformed brains. Several thousand babies in Brazil have microcephaly.

Zika is only transmitted by mosquitos or sexual contact. In the United States, we have advanced mosquito control processes in place unlike countries in South and Central America, so we don’t have to worry about getting the disease via mosquitos quite like the rest of the world has to worry.

Since this disease is seriously affecting women’s health and the health of their newborn babies, discussions around reproduction rights are happening among activists and within various South and Central American countries.

The rhetoric around abortion and women’s health rights in South and Central America seems to be forgetting that it takes two to tango.

I’ve recently learned that birth control and abortion laws are extremely strict in most South American countries due to a strong influence of the Catholic Church and simply tradition. In countries where women do not have access to birth control and are prohibited from getting abortions, it’s problematic to simply tell them not to get pregnant. But, that’s what they’re doing.

According to the New York Times, the government of El Salvador is telling women to wait until 2018 to become pregnant.

Health officials in Brazil and Jamaica are also telling women to hold off.

It’s a logical suggestion since the reality of the matter is that it is highly dangerous for women to get pregnant during this world health crises, however, it’s a little backward for the men in power to advise women not to get pregnant in a society where they are being denied rights to birth control.

And like I mentioned earlier, are they forgetting that men play a role in reproduction, too?

Thankfully, the United Nations also saw that these suggestions were problematic.

“The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant, ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common,” Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said last Friday in an official statement from the UN.

Hussein is a UN High Commissioner for human rights.

The UN is urging governments in South and Central America to ease up on abortion laws.  A Think Progress article mentioned that UN officials are saying that these governments’ harsh laws actually breach human rights treaties considering this virus is so dangerous and widespread.

It is easy to get caught up in the social issues in our own country, especially with the 2016 Presidential election. I know that I often become consumed in the nitty-gritty feminist issues in the US and I think that is why this news was so shocking to me.

It is important to think about social issues beyond our country’s borders. Women all around the globe suffer from denied rights that are actually just societal norms to them, since their laws and traditions are so rooted deeply in the patriarchy.

Thank God the UN has addressed this issue. I can only hope that these governments can become unstuck in their ways for the sake of not only women’s health, but for the sake of human rights.

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