The Incredible Sexism Around the Zika Virus

February 4th 2016

Laura Donovan

As the mosquito-borne Zika virus continues to spread, officials in Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, and El Salvador, have advised women to hold off on getting pregnant because the condition might cause birth defects. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has asked pregnant women to stay away from the 22 countries that have experienced Zika outbreaks, and it is also encouraging pregnant women to use condoms or abstain from sex if their partner might have Zika.

There is a glaring problem with all of these warnings: they shoulder the responsibility of staying healthy on women and don't take into account the obvious biological fact that men impregnate women and should be subjected to these health advisories as well.


Paula Young Lee, a contributor for Dame magazine, highlighted the blatant sexism of Zika advisories in a recent piece, noting that no one would ever believe it if a government told men not to have sex for a few years to prevent an infection.

"Why does the very suggestion of any government recommending men to practice abstinence for two years seem like a joke?" she wrote. "The cultural reflex to hold women accountable for male lust and subsequent reproduction is so ingrained that we don’t even notice the asymmetry. Indeed, it strikes the domesticated mind as verging on unreasonable to hold men morally responsible when pregnancy is unwelcome, unwanted, or, in the case of the Zika virus, a potential public health disaster."


This also brings to mind the social stigma and shame that women experience when they have unintended pregnancies. Despite the fact that women need sperm for their eggs to be fertilized, pregnancy is "repeatedly framed as an act of bodily will on the sole part of the woman," Young Lee argued.

Abortion and contraception access in Latin America.


It is also astounding that countries with strict abortion policies and limited access to contraception are telling women to just avoid getting pregnant to protect themselves from Zika. This advice on it's own (without policies to implement it) is highly ineffective, as the World Health Organization (WHO) found that teenage women account for nearly 20 percent of Latin America births, and it is estimated that more than half of the pregnancies are unplanned, according to Amnesty International.

"They don’t have access to information, they don’t have access to contraception, and they don’t have access to the option to terminate a pregnancy," Tarah Demant, senior director of the Identity and Discrimination Unit at Amnesty International, told Time magazine, adding that Latin American women are among the lowest contraception users in the world and that emergency contraception there is expensive and hard to obtain.

Birth control pill

Latin America, of course, is known for being very Catholic, and the church is against contraception and abortion alike. When the BBC asked the Vatican press office if the church would shift its abortion or contraception teachings in the wake of Zika, a spokesperson said, "For the moment there is no comment about this."

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