UN Human Rights Chief: To Battle Zika, Uphold Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls

Isabela Cristina, 18, who is six months pregnant, shows a photo of her ultrasound at the IMIP hospital in Recife, Pernambuco state, Brazil, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016. (Photo: AP/Felipe Dana)

UN Human Rights Chief: To Battle Zika, Uphold Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls

Telling women not to get pregnant when 'sexual and reproductive health services are criminalized, or simply unavailable' a failed reponse to epidemic

The United Nations human rights office has criticized the recommendation by Zika-affected countries that women not become pregnant, saying that response to the epidemic fails to address the widespread and unjust denial of rights to women and girls.

The response by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein on Friday comes days after the World Health Organization declared the outbreaks of microcephaly in Latin America and their possible link to the Zika virus a global health emergency.

As the New York Timesreports,

The virus, known as Zika, has rattled Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly Brazil, where more than a million people have been infected and nearly 4,000 children have been born with microcephaly, a rare condition in which babies have unusually small heads.

El Salvador has urged women not to get pregnant until 2018, and

Other nations around the region have issued warnings similar to El Salvador's, with officials in Colombia and Ecuador urging women to put off becoming pregnant for months, or until the dangers of the virus are better understood.

Echoing women's rights campaigners UN's Zeid said that recommendation "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." He addressed what, as Paula Young Lee writes in Dame this week, has been the three-letter word missing from the warnings: men. He stated, "Many of the key issues revolve around men's failure to uphold the rights of women and girls, and a range of strong measures need to be taken to tackle these underlying problems."

"In Zika-affected countries that have restrictive laws governing women's reproductive rights, the situation facing women and girls is particularly stark on a number of levels," Zeid said. "In situations where sexual violence is rampant, and sexual and reproductive health services are criminalized, or simply unavailable, efforts to halt this crisis will not be enhanced by placing the focus on advising women and girls not to become pregnant."

Journalist Jill Filipovic details the situation women face in the region:

According to Gallup polling, people living in Latin American are less likely to say that women are treated with respect and dignity than people living anywhere else in the world. Violence against women is endemic -- in Peru, for example, half of women say their first sexual experience was forced. Poverty remains feminized. Contraception access is improving, but remains low for adolescents and low-income women in particular. Half of pregnancies are unplanned. Despite the region's severely restrictive anti-abortion laws, there are an estimated 4.4 million abortions every year in Latin America and the Caribbean, 95 percent of them unsafe. Every year, a million Latin American women end up hospitalized and an estimated 2,000 die from unsafe abortions. Those are epidemics, too, and they've been met largely with a shrug.

Take El Salvador. For every 100,000 women who give birth, 54 die from pregnancy-related causes. (By contrast, in Denmark the number is seven, France is eight and the United States is 14.) And unlike most of the world, maternal deaths in El Salvador have been increasing since 2003.

Rising maternal deaths have yielded little self-inquiry from the country's leaders. El Salvador is one of seven countries in the region that outlaws abortion in all cases, not even permitting procedures to save a pregnant woman's life.

Thus, as Jessica Valenti writes at the Guardian, "The recommendations as they stand are not just unrealistic, they're dangerous. Because if there's one thing that public health experts know, it's this: women who don't want to be pregnant will find some way not to be, including illegal and unsafe abortions."

The UN human rights chief addressed the interplay between the absence of access to such services and the addressing epidemic. "Upholding human rights is essential to an effective public health response and this requires that governments ensure women, men, and adolescents have access to comprehensive and affordable quality sexual and reproductive health services and information, without discrimination," Zeid said.

"Laws and policies that restrict her access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations in order to ensure the right to health for all in practice," he added.

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