The Zika virus has re-opened the debate surrounding strict discriminatory laws against women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Latin America. The epidemic has highlighted the need to reform restrictive laws and inadequate public health systems.
The burden and blame for Zika related birth defects has been unreasonably placed on women. Officials have suggested women avoid pregnancy until 2018. However, in Latin America 58% of pregnancies are unintended due to a lack of access to sexual education, high rates of sexual violence and unequal access to birth control. Women’s ability to access contraception is affected by high costs, religious influence on laws, unwilling partners and a negative interpretation of abortion based on traditional gender roles.
In six Latin American countries abortion is fully criminalized with no exceptions; El Salvador, Chile, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua and Suriname. In certain countries, abortion is permitted under limited circumstances. In El Salvador, women can face up to 40 years in prison for an abortion or if they are suspected of inducing stillbirths or miscarriages. Indigenous women, low-income and those living in rural areas with limited public health services are disproportionally affected by these laws.
Women’s groups in Latin America continue to demand access to family planning services and information as well as safe and legal abortions. Women’s groups fill the gap in sex education, teach women and girls about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, and help them access contraceptives. They also work with women to navigate complex abortion laws and exceptions and find physicians that provide adequate and reliable care.
“Zika started a conversation about women’s health we should have already had“, Humanosphere, March 3, 2016.
“Desperate women in Zika-infected countries are begging for abortion pills”, Think Progress, February 17, 2016.
“Zika fears increase demand for abortions in countries where it’s illegal to have one,” Los Angeles Times, March 9, 2016.
Support the declaration by Amnesty International that recognizes that certain violations of sexual and reproductive rights constitute violence against women at the hands of the state.