Zika: An opportunity for the pro-choice movement in Nicaragua
In a country where direct and indirect violence is a part of everyday life for many women, the Zika virus is just another concern to add to the list. At the same time, however, it provides an unexpected but welcome opportunity for those campaigning for change.
A walk down the street can in many ways feel like stepping back in time; horses and carts, converted 1980s school buses, and crumbling colonial buildings. They have come to be some of the defining features of Nicaragua’s character and charm. However, there is one unsettling aspect of everyday life that, as a woman, stares you in the face.
Consistent street harassment is distinctly emblematic of a wider adverse attitude towards women, and is representative of a portion of society that seems to believe women do not have the right to autonomy over their bodies, either when making the short trip to buy tomatoes, or the difficult decision to have an abortion. 28% of women giving birth in Nicaragua do so before the age of 18. A report by Plan International found this to be influenced by high rates of poverty and sexual violence, yet, as it stands, abortion is illegal in all circumstances.
The Penal Code was voted in by the National Assembly in 2006. It imposes extensive prison sentences for women and girls seeking abortion, and those providing them. Due to the increasing certainty of a link between microcephaly and the Zika virus, reproductive rights groups in Nicaragua are pushing with increased urgency for a review of the government´s strict abortion stance.
You could be forgiven for thinking the government is doing all it can. Nationwide brigades have been sent out to fumigate homes and streets, and one Granada resident, Kimberley Díaz, said “Every week they are fumigating to prevent mosquitoes spreading Dengue, Chicungunya, and Zika. I think it’s good what the government is doing.” It has also advised that homes be kept clean and water puddles avoided; fertile breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
However, it has not provided any options for pregnant women who have already contracted or are nervous about Zika, which is asymptomatic in 80% of cases. Access to abortion is now, more than ever, a vital issue for the government to confront, yet it has not been mentioned. Thus, those most at risk have been offered the least comfort.
In the midst of this public health emergency, Catholics for Choice launched an advert campaign appealing for Pope Francis to advocate the use of birth control and abortion. The president of the organization, Jon O’Brien, said “it describes the reality for women in Latin America–that the criminalization of abortion and restrictions on birth control cause suffering.”
The adverts were printed in the New York Times, newspapers in El Salvador, and one of the two major papers in Nicaragua; El Nuevo Diario. The more socially conservative La Prensa refused to print it. Nonetheless, it was a positive step:
“Catholics for Choice was able to beat the heavy censorship of the state and church and tell the truth: in a country with one of the most restrictive abortion laws, women don’t have the ability to protect themselves.”
A global poll conducted by Univision in 2014 revealed 73% of Catholics in Latin America believe abortion should be permitted in some or all cases, and Catholics for Choice is continuing to build a campaign to restore “therapeutic abortion” in Nicaragua – a clause which allowed abortion in some cases before the Penal Code was established.
The threat of birth and development defects posed by the Zika and microcephaly link has led El Salvador, amongst others, to advise women to avoid pregnancy. The glaring contradictions of such advice have been pointed out, however, for placing responsibility squarely on the shoulders of women: a large number of whom do not have access to contraceptives.
Beatriz Galli, the Senior Policy Advisor of Ipas (an NGO committed to ending preventable deaths and disabilities resulting from unsafe abortion), stated: “governments should ensure women have access to contraception and safe abortion, particularly in the face of the Zika epidemic, which will disproportionately affect young, poor and rural women”.
Díaz pointed out that although it is easier to access contraceptives in the city, “many girls send their friends to collect them as a favor, because they are too embarrassed to go themselves.” Clearly, the stigma attached to using sexual health services even when they are available is another issue yet to be tackled.
Unlike its neighbors, the Nicaraguan government has urged the population to “remain calm”. There have been 108 confirmed cases, compared to the 4,800 or more in Brazil, but Díaz says many are nervous about its spread.
“Four months ago I had Chicungunya – the pain was unbearable. I cannot imagine having to deal with Zika, especially in the aftermath of Chicungunya. I’m taking all measures to avoid being bitten.” She added “Pregnant women are very concerned. It would not only be one person that suffers, but two; the baby and the mother.”
The director of Ipas Central America, Marta María Blandón, said “It’s good that the government is not alarming the population, especially women who are pregnant or at risk of having an imposed or unplanned pregnancy. However I believe that this measure is not enough to face the consequences of Zika.”
Ipas has led various campaigns to demand amendments to the law between 2006 and 2016. Brandon added “this epidemic provides an opportunity to show that women, particularly when they are pregnant, are faced with certain situations that laws and legal and medical standards need to consider.”
“With Zika or not, it is the obligation of states to ensure that no law prevents doctors to act promptly to provide pregnant women the highest possible standards for enjoying motherhood.”
The advice given by the Nicaraguan government to “remain calm” errs on the side of caution. With an important election looming this year, President Daniel Ortega will want to avoid the increased clout wielded by reproductive rights groups, as the response in neighboring countries has only been to exert more pressure on governments.
Denying women safe access to abortion does not mean they will no longer be sought, but that even more women will be put at risk. Zika is highlighting the pressing need for improved access to sexual health and abortion services in Nicaragua, and many groups are seizing the unexpected opportunity it has given them.
This piece was originally published by Huffington Post.