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What has Zika got to do with International Women's Day?

by Katja Iversen & Fernanda Maria Madrigal, Women Deliver
Tuesday, 8 March 2016 10:43 GMT

Patricia Araujo, 23, who is seven-months pregnant, stands next to children in front of their stilt house, a lake dwelling also known as palafitte or 'Palafito', in Recife, Brazil, February 8, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Zika's spread is a reminder of the impossible circumstances women in Latin America face in accessing essential reproductive health services

As Zika spreads across Latin America, countries and communities are confronted with the costs of limiting girls’ and women’s health and rights. In Zika stricken regions, women are asked to postpone pregnancies, but are not given the legal rights or power to access the services they need and deserve.

The Zika outbreak is yet another reminder of the impossible circumstances women in the region – and beyond – face while trying to access essential and life-saving sexual and reproductive health services. This challenge, multiplied time and again, is the reason we need to invest more in the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women throughout Latin America and the world.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, 56% of all pregnancies were unintended in 2012 according to the Guttmacher Institute. Of those pregnancies many end in unsafe abortions, since restrictive abortion laws in the region make it difficult for women to secure safe abortion services.

One of the best ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and unsafe abortion is to provide girls and women access to essential family planning information and services. Yet, globally, more than 225 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using modern contraceptives.

If we filled these global gaps in sexual and reproductive health services, education and rights – and provided women with the full range of pregnancy care they are entitled to – we could reduce unintended pregnancy by 70% and unsafe abortions by 74%, according to the Guttmacher Institute. We also know that when girls and women can choose whether and when to have children, they are more likely to reach their full potential – and so are their families, communities and economies.

For these reasons we owe it to our mothers, sisters and daughters, as well as our families and communities, to do more and do better – and local young advocates are leading the charge.

At Las Libres, in Guanajuato, Mexico, a cadre of young advocates are dedicated to making sure that pregnant women who are considering an abortion have the psychological and medical support they need. Abortion is still illegal in many parts of Mexico, which makes it heavily stigmatized and unsafe. Las Libres has created a network where women can get the information and counseling they need to feel empowered to make the choices they want.

Las Libres also uses local research to develop innovative strategies to debunk stigma associated with abortion and other sensitive topics. For example, their documentary Las Libres: The Story Continues highlights the effects of criminalizing abortion on women from a local perspective. The film was presented at various festivals and events and used to generate dialogue about the issue.

We must approach health and development through a gender lens. And, we must look for more solutions from every country, region, sector and generation – from providing emotional support to women making tough decisions to addressing stigma and discrimination around sexual and reproductive health.

These solutions and many more will be explored at the Women Deliver 2016 Conference taking place in Copenhagen in May. Global and local leaders, including Mrs. Graça Machel, Annie Lennox and Deputy Director International Planned Parenthood Federation Western Hemisphere Region Giselle Carino will stand alongside 5,000 world influencers and advocates - from the highest-levels of government to grassroots change-makers - to discuss how to deliver on promises to girls and women. 

Crucially, a good 20% of attendees will be young people - and for good reason: young people aren’t just our leaders of tomorrow. They are the leaders of today, and must be given opportunities to drive change in their communities.

With the endorsement of the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals – a set of UN goals adopted by 193 countries that aim to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030 – we can and must ensure that the global push to end poverty, fight inequality and tackle climate change starts with every girl and woman, no matter where she lives, no matter her age. As they say, it is time to translate the “talk into walk" and turn speech lines into budget lines.

This International Women’s Day, let’s recognize the powerful solutions every young person and every generation has to offer. Let’s work smarter for girls and women everywhere. 

Katja Iversen is CEO of Women Deliver and Fernanda Maria Madrigal is a Women Deliver Young Leader and human rights lawyer