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Zika and the inter-connected fate of women’s rights

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As lawmakers comeback to Washington this week after a long summer break, a crisis they left to simmer has only gotten worse, and has buzzed onto the American mainland. 

Since Congress went on vacation in July without authorizing the White House’s $1.9 billion request to combat the Zika virus, the number of cases in the United States and its territories has quadrupled, from around 4,000 to more than 16,000, with Puerto Rico being the hardest hit.

{mosads}And while the Zika cases  sprouting up all over the country are mainly due to international travel to high-risk Zika infected areas in Latin America and the Caribbean, the virus is also spread through sexual transmission and locally through mosquitoes in south Florida that are testing positive for the virus. At the same time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention is saying money to fight Zika is drying up.

The reality though is that this crisis isn’t just an American problem. Zika knows no boundaries. In fact, rapid globalization and urbanization is the main reason why Zika has been able to travel from Africa all the way to Central and South America. It thrives in marginalized and neglected communities where inadequate infrastructure provides breeding grounds for mosquitos and people have little access to prevention information and health care services.

Further compounding the issue is the fact that many women around the world, including in the United States, don’t have access to even the most basic means of preventing unintended pregnancy and making the decision about whether to have a child.

Why is this a Zika issue? Pregnant women face the greatest threat, as fetuses exposed to the virus can develop microcephaly and other severe brain problems. That’s why the CDC says family planning is the primary strategy to reduce Zika-related pregnancy complications.

However, that’s easier said than done, particularly in communities hardest hit by Zika. In Latin America, for example, more than 20 million women lack access to contraception, and many also don’t have basic sex education information, or even the ability to decide when they have sexual relations due to the high rates of sexual and gender based violence.

At the same time, officials in Brazil and El Salvador, for example, are asking women to delay pregnancy without working to provide increased access to contraception and reproductive health care.

What’s more, because abortion is illegal or highly restricted in many Latin American countries hit by Zika, access to safe abortions for women infected by the virus who chose to end a pregnancy is limited to those with financial means. 

Puerto Rico, meanwhile, has nearly 10,000 confirmed Zika cases – more than 1,000 of which are pregnant women – and the CDC thinks that by year’s end, one quarter of the island will be infected. There too, access to contraception is scarce, and many health care centers do not provide women with a full range of contraceptive options or abortion services. As a result, an estimated 65 percent of pregnancies in Puerto Rico are unplanned.

And women here in the continental United States who lack resources face similar risks as those in the Caribbean and Latin America. Low income and women of color also have limited access to quality health care services and face numerous obstacles to obtaining reproductive health information and services. This is particularly true in the areas of the country with the highest risk of Zika infections, primarily the Gulf Coast region.

Anti-women’s health politicians in these states have passed numerous laws that restrict access to basic family planning and reproductive health care information and services.

And there are some in Washington pushing this same agenda by focusing on limiting access to family planning providers best suited to reach the women who are most impacted by Zika instead of prioritizing a funding bill.

Adequately resourcing the Zika fight is not just an American women’s rights issue, it’s a global one. At home and abroad, we should prioritize the rights of women and empower them with the information and services to protect themselves and their families. The world is inter-connected, and that means investing in our shared stake in the health and well-being of all people, no matter where they live. In the fight against Zika, that not only means that Congress should pass a Zika package that broadens access to contraception, but also recognizes that women and their empowerment must be at the center of the response.

Caitlin Horrigan is the Associate Director of Global Advocacy for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Michelle Dixon is co-director of the Global Progressive Hub. Michelle has helped manage a wide range of global issue campaigns and coalitions over the last decade and a half.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


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