Kevin Gray, Manuel Rueda, and Tim Rogers
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As Zika spreads throughout the hemisphere, it's becoming abundantly clear that many Latin American governments view the public health crisis as a women's problem.


From Colombian condom-distribution campaigns targeting women, to El Salvador's addle-brained attempt to discourage all new pregnancies until some magical date in 2018, Latin America's response to the problem has underscored a general incompetency and systemic misogyny that has long corrupted public policies in the hemisphere.

There has been very little messaging targeting men to tell them what they should be doing differently in response to the Zika scare. And PSAs targeting women have not been accompanied by adequate efforts to provide expanded health services related to sexual and reproductive rights, making calls to avoid pregnancy a message without echo.


“Zika has served as a reminder of just how bad the issue of reproductive rights is in much of Latin America,” says Maria Alejandra Cardenas, legal director at the advocacy group Women’s Link International. “We see governments coming out asking women to postpone their pregnancies as if they’re the only ones involved in the reproductive process.”

At the same time, the Zika crisis and its frightening link to babies born with microcephaly is creating a new opportunity to reexamine discriminatory policies against women—especially when it comes to the region's draconian restrictions on sexual reproductive rights.

In Brazil, lawyers and activists are preparing a legal motion to expand current abortion laws to cover instances of Zika-related microcephaly. And in El Salvador, the Central American country most afflicted by Zika and one most backwards places on earth when it comes to protecting women's sexual reproductive rights, there's suddenly a renewed urgency to push the National Assembly to repeal the country's total abortion ban.


"There's already a joke here that mosquitoes have become feminists' greatest ally in the fight to decriminalize abortion," says Morena Herrera, El Salvador's longtime women's right champion and former FMLN congresswoman.

Other countries remain unmoved by the crisis. In Dominican Republic, where late last year a high court blocked a new law that would have decriminalized abortions in instances when a woman's life is at risk, activists can only hope that Zika will spur the government to respond sensibly.


Dominican abortion activist Sergia Galvan says pregnant women facing complications due to Zika will be forced to get back-alley abortions under unsafe circumstances, making the health scare even more onerous on women.

“Zika is offering us an opportunity to bring our women’s rights policies into the 21st century,” she said. “I hope the government will seize it.”


Other countries just can't even deal. In poor, hapless Venezuela doctors say they can't even recommend that women avoid pregnancy because the country is out of condoms.

Venezuela is so far behind in its response to Zika, that it hasn’t even released any educational campaigns about the global health crisis. And given the country's myriad problems, it's not clear what response Venezuela would even be able to muster.


“There are no condoms or birth control pills here,” Venezuelan epidemiologist Jose Felix Oletta told Fusion. “So what are we supposed to do? Tell people to use the rhythm method?”

A Zika public service announcement in Colombia targets women


The U.S. is also not free of guilt. The 40-year-old Helms amendment restricts the U.S. government from providing foreign aid for safe abortion, and also prevents the U.S. from having any moral leverage to urge Latin American countries to repeal repressive laws that violate women's sexual and reproductive rights.

So in responding to Zika, the U.S. needs to be among the other countries in the hemisphere that first take a deep look in the mirror, says Brian Dixon, senior vice president for media and government relations at Washington, D.C.-based Population Connection Action Fund.


In the best case scenario, Dixon says, the mosquito-borne scare will force the governments of Latin America, the Caribbean and also the U.S. to reexamine their outdated laws and "start recognizing that women need access to safe abortion, not just because of Zika but because of all the other challenges that women face in preventing unintended pregnancy."

If there is an upside to public health crisis, it's that Zika has "forced a conversation that is a long time coming," Dixon said.


"It shouldn't take a public health crisis that's affecting women to this degree to move people," Dixon told Fusion. "But maybe this is what it takes, and i hope it won't take more. Does there have to be an even worse thing that women have to go through before we realize that they need the power to be able to take control of their own destiny?"

Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.


Tim Rogers, Fusion's senior editor for Latin America, was born a gringo to well-meaning parents, but would rather have been Nicaraguan. Also, he's the second hit on Google when you search for "Guatemalan superhero." Tim was a Nieman Fellow in 2014.

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