In the wake of the World Health Organisation declaring the Zika virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern last month, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) today at the UN, highlighted the role of restrictive laws governing women’s reproductive rights in the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) region.
IHEU’s director of advocacy, Elizabeth O’Casey, echoed the recent words of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who called for the affected countries to take concrete steps to ensure that women have the information and services they need to determine whether and when they become pregnant, including contraception and abortion.
O’Casey noted how the Zika crisis has shed light on the sociocultural issues that already exist and which undermine Sexual, Reproductive, Health and Rights (SRHR) of women in the region.
The IHEU called on those states with laws and policies restricting access to reproductive services to bring them into line with human rights obligations urgently and also asked that the Office of the High Commissioner look into the importance of SRHR in the context of the Zika virus as a public health emergency.
Her statement follows in full below:
International Humanist and Ethical Union
UN Human Rights Council, 31st Session (29th February – 24th March 2016)
General Debate on Item 8
Since Brazil reported the first case of transmission of the Zika virus in May 2015, it has spread to 26 countries and territories of the the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC) region. Last month, the High Commissioner criticized “Zika-affected countries that have restrictive laws governing women’s reproductive rights,” urging them to take concrete steps to ensure that women have the information and services they need to determine whether and when they become pregnant, including “contraception” and “abortion.”
Access to contraception remains limited throughout the region, especially for poor and rural women and abortion is restricted or illegal in many countries. In Brazil, evangelical house speaker Eduardo Cunha, is leading a bill to toughen further access to abortion and tighten the screening process for rape victims.
Five GRULAC states, Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Colombia and Jamaica, have advised women to delay pregnancy. However, as the High Commissioner notes, in countries where “sexual and reproductive health services are criminalized, or simply unavailable, efforts to halt this crisis will not be enhanced by placing the focus on advising women and girls not to become pregnant.”
This path also ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over the circumstances in which they become pregnant; 50% of pregnancies in Latin America are unplanned, many of which come as a result of rape and sexual violence.
The Vienna Declaration confirms, “on the basis of equality”, a woman’s right to health care and the “widest range of family planning services.” (Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, §41) The Zika crisis sheds light on the sociocultural issues that already exist and undermine SRHR of women in the region, and reinforces the lack of autonomy that many women are facing there.
We call on those with laws and policies restricting access to reproductive services to bring them into line with human rights obligations urgently. We also call on the office of the High Commissioner to look into the importance of SRHR as set out in Vienna, ICCPR, and other relevant conventions in the wake of the Zika virus.