In the last two months, Latin America has called the world’s attention. The protagonist is an old dated virus called Zika. This virus is being signaled as the culprit for the astronomical increase of babies born with microcephaly, a condition that results in impeding the normal growth of the head and the brain. For instance, only in Brazil, 4,000 cases were reported in the last four months . Although it has not yet been proved that Zika is the direct responsible for these cases, the virus is spreading rapidly across the region, raising alarms.
But before we fall into collective hysteria about this daunting situation, let’s pause for a second. Can you imagine if media outlets, governments and common people gave Gender-Based Violence (GBV) the same attention and coverage that Zika gets?
In 2013, the World Health Organization stated that violence against women is a global health problem of epidemic proportions. This means that GBV is a real threat to the survival and well-being of half of humanity. Indeed, the potential damages of babies being born with microcephaly are devastating. But, what about the scars that 1 out of 3 women in the world bear for being physically, verbally, psychologically and sexually abused? In spite of this situation, in dealing with Zika we are making the same shameful mistake than in dealing with GBV: the burden of responsibility is being placed heavily on women.
But what about men? The Salvadorian case is a clear example of this situation.
The Government recommended women to delay “getting pregnant” for at least two years, while a vaccine is developed. No mention was made to the role of men and boys who contribute in this process, as if women were getting pregnant on their own. Women have to assume full responsibility while men get out of jail free card. Literally. As El Salvador forbids abortion, a woman can face up to 30 years in jail for homicide.
In addition, it is estimated that 30% of pregnant women are between 10-19 years of age. The situation is especially worrisome for younger girls. In 2014, the Office of Civil Rights released a special report highlighting the increase of pregnancies of girls between the age of 10 and 14. Rarely men or boys are brought into justice for these abuses and such practices tend to be normalized and socially accepted. Even as the Penal Code punishes sexual acts with minors (under 18 years of age) with up to 14 years in jail. These are undeniable examples of the permissiveness granted to men and boys and the inability to protect girls and women.
But again, instead of talking about men and boys, the spotlight is placed on women.
In sum, Salvadorian women are “suggested” not to get pregnant and they cannot have an abortion. How come the Government is not suggesting men to use condoms, to restrain from sex or get a vasectomy? Because in this prevalent traditional vision of masculinity, getting pregnant is a women’s problem and real man never turns down sex.
But this is not an exclusive situation of El Salvador. In every country in Latin America and the Caribbean where Zika is already present or highly likely to spread, women face tremendous challenges while men remain oblivious.
In some cases, religious views still shape public policy. This is the case of Haiti, Honduras, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Suriname where abortion is banned. This prohibition affects disproportionately millions of low-income women who cannot pay for accessing private facilities and who are more likely to live in places where the mosquito breeds, as the Brazilian case was shown us. Early and child marriages are also a pressing issue. On average, 3 out of 10 women under the age of 18 in Latin America are married or in a union. The highest prevalence rates are in Brazil (36%), Dominican Republic and Nicaragua (41%). The combination of these factors create a dire reality for young women in the region.
The scientific community is working relentlessly to find the answer for the Zika situation. In the meantime, there are three things that each of us can do today to use this situation as a real opportunity to bring gender equality into the picture, especially men:
- Stop blaming pregnancies on women and involve men. Provide free contraceptives to men and women, free blood tests and inform expectant mothers. Let’s talk openly about other alternatives for birth control, for instance, vasectomy. This is not a moral issue, it is a public health issue and it should be treated as such.
- Stop targeting women and also target men. Make explicit the men’s responsibility and their role. It is so easy to tell women to “be careful” and “watch out” reinforcing that idea that women are at men’s disposal. Instead of wasting public funds on such discriminatory acts, broadcast ads targeting men and get key male figures involved to create a different culture around this issue. There is no microcephaly without baby, and no baby without men. So target the root causes not the consequences.
- Stop men telling women what to do with their bodies. Challenge religious leaders and law makers who impose their moral views over the rights of women to decide over their own bodies. If men were responsible too for each illegal abortion, this would not be a topic of conversation.