During my last visit to Colombia to attend the International Civil Society Week at the end of April in Bogota, I took some time to visit my family in Palmira, my home town, located in the southwest of the country. Palmira, it’s a beautiful city, surrounded by sugar cane plantations and a summer climate all year round. Unfortunately, one of its inhabitants is the famous aedes mosquito, transmitter of diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and zika. I ran with such bad luck of being bitten and getting zika.

Everything I’ve heard of zika during my time in the United States, made me think it was a terrible disease, but to my surprise the symptoms are mild, the only uncomfortable things are the itchy rash, and that feeling of tiredness and stiffness joints all the time, that makes you slow down, but doesn’t prevent you to continue with your normal activities.

In Colombia, the zika is treated as a regular disease, and doctor recommend you rest since there is no cure, but symptoms are controlled throught Tylenol. After various tests, I could travel back to the United States and now I’m recovering at home, following the recommendations and letting it out of my body.

However, although for the majority of the population the zika is not a serious disease, it certainly is if you are pregnant or plan to become pregnant in the near term. Zika has been associated with malformation of the fetus during pregnancy, particularly microcephaly.

Some Latin American governments, particularly in Colombia and El Salvador, have asked women to postpone their plans to become pregnant, while the relationship between Zika and microcephaly is confirmed; instead of promoting sexual and reproductive education, and access birth control methods.

In Latinamerica, unplanned pregnancy is very high, especially among low income, rural and marginalized communities. For example, in Colombia 52% of pregnancies are unplanned according to Profamilia. Abortion is prohibited and penalized in many LAC countries or allowed under especial circumstances, like rape, malformation of the fetus and high risk for the life of the mother. If allowed, administrative barriers make almost impossible for woman under this cases to get an abortion on time or they are stigmatized.

This attitudes, recommendations and beliefs restrict women sexual and reproductive rights, and sexist. For that reason, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called on Latin American countries hit by the Zika epidemic to allow women access to abortion and birth control. “The laws and policies that restrict access to these services must be urgently reviewed in line with human rights obligations,” the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said in a statement. “We are asking those governments to go back and change those laws,” said spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly. “Because how can they ask those women to become pregnant but also not offer them first information that is available, but the possibility to stop their pregnancies if they wish?”

Fear of Zika threatens to raise clandestine abortion in LAC. The lack of access to contraception and abortion ban lead to unsafe practices that could endanger life and sexual and reproductive health of women. Some ideas to help prevent this are:

  • Local partnerships in countries affected by Zika to promote access to quality information about women sexual and reproductive rights and contraception methods
  • Storytelling: the fear of being pregnant and getting Zika. Showcase the story of pregnant women in Zika’s most affected countries.
  • Abortion legal tracker tool / Abortion barriers tracker tool where allowed
  • Support local reproductive rights advocacy groups to promote effective access to contraception methods.