What feminist politics looks like in practice: responding to the Zika virus

Image provider: CDC/ James Gathany

I’ve been accused of being overly abstract (and irrelevant) when pointing out that the personal is, in fact, political. It’s one thing for thoughtful people who have many forms of privilege–being straight, white, male, among others–to discuss racism and sexism in theory-existing somewhere “out there”, but quite another when they are confronted with the very concrete manifestations in their personal lives and relationships.

So here’s an example of what I see as a very positive and constructive application of theory to practice: the feminist response to the Zika virus. I imagine women in the Americas (myself included) being completely perplexed, if not downright terrified, of the recommendations coming from governments to avoid or delay pregnancy–for up to two years in some cases. It’s one thing if you have access to high quality health care, as most people with means do. But a very different story if you don’t.

Access to contraceptives and safe, legal abortion is severely restricted in many of the countries affected by the Zika virus. Violence, including violence against women, can make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to avoid unprotected sex, and in turn, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (which the Zika virus is suspected of being). And any time states have taken it upon themselves to dictate whether and when to have children, the results have never been good for women. It’s a surefire recipe for abuse and human rights violations, such as coercive or forced sterilization, pregnancy, and termination as well as unsafe abortion.

And what of the right to become pregnant, to have positive pregnancy outcomes for both mother and child, and raise children in a healthy and safe environment? The situation with the Zika virus echoes what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, where parents and caregivers can’t even feed or bathe their children without potential devastating consequences of lead poisoning. The common denominator is that those most affected are poor and minorities, and it’s due to historical, systemic failures of societies to protect the rights and wellbeing of all people–not just the ones with privilege and money.

So back to feminism, this press release issued by the Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights and the Latin American and Caribbean Women’s Health Network provides practical advice to governments on a human-rights based response to the Zika virus. Instead of issuing bizarre recommendations that would be difficult for any woman to implement, make sure women have access to comprehensive, high quality sexual and reproductive health care. Make sure we have access to services that will allow us to continue pregnancy if we so choose and the services and resources to address whatever health outcomes we and our children face. Get men involved–tell them to keep it in their pants if they’re worried about sexual transmission and microcephaly. And for God’s sake, stop controlling women’s sexuality and reproductive lives by criminalizing and restricting access to contraceptives and abortion.

It doesn’t make the Zika virus any less scary, but if governments–including the U.S.–took it upon themselves to follow these recommendations, it’d make it a lot easier to cope and make informed decisions about some of the most intimate aspects of your life. That’s what I call a practical application of feminist theory to real life.

– Alia


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