02/09/2016 01:30 EST | Updated 02/09/2017 05:12 EST

The Zika Virus Is Hitting Poor Women The Hardest

Josiane da Silva holds her son Jose Elton, who was born with microcephaly, outside her house in Alcantil, Paraiba state, Brazil, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016. The Zika virus, spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, thrives in people's homes and can breed in even a bottle cap's-worth of stagnant water. Public health experts agree that the poor are more vulnerable because they often lack amenities that help diminish the risk. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

by Julie Delahanty, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada

Whenever crisis strikes in the world, women are the hardest hit -- they are the poorest of the poor, the most unequal of the unequal.

And now there's Zika. A mosquito-borne virus that disproportionately affects poor women.

It is no surprise that the problem is felt most by women in the poorest region of Brazil. Because women make up the majority of the world's poor -- the ones who live in homes without mosquito screens or nets, or the option of putting on repellent. They live in ramshackle housing in neighbourhoods with garbage and standing water where mosquitos thrive. Every day is a struggle for food, clean water and hygiene, the basics for a healthy life.

The response of the international community so far has been to tell women not to get pregnant.

But most of all, Zika is hitting poor women hardest because women get pregnant. While still unproven, the Zika virus, mild for many who get it, appears to cause a severe fetal abnormality -- microcephaly -- in which an infant's head doesn't develop properly in the womb and causes brain damage. The rate of microcephaly in Brazil is suddenly 20 times above average and that rise appears to coincide with Zika outbreaks.


Maria Nazarete dos Santos photographed in Sirinhaém, Pernambuco, Brazil.Photo: Tatiana Cardeal/Oxfam

The response of the international community so far has been to tell women not to get pregnant. The El Salvadoran government went so far as to tell women in that country not to get pregnant for the next two years.

Are you kidding me?

It's not as if many of them weren't already trying to avoid pregnancy. The unmet need for family planning remains massive, with a huge portion of women wanting to avoid pregnancy unable to do so for want of family planning and other reproductive health services. For many, especially in Latin America where sexual violence is high, it isn't always within a woman's power to refuse sex when the alternative is to be killed or beaten for saying no. To seek an abortion is difficult, expensive, stigmatized and often illegal. And unsafe abortions kill as many 68,000 women a year.

Those women who do give birth to a baby affected by microcephaly can look forward to taking on all the responsibility of a disabled child, and the reality that they will continue to live in poverty. A Brazilian woman whose child was born with microcephaly told the Al Jazeera news agency that she desperately wants and needs to work, but can't find anyone to care for her baby with special needs.

The Zika virus is spreading fast, with scientists speculating that the weather phenomenon El Nino, coupled with climate change, may be creating more warm, wet places where the mosquito that carries the virus can thrive. Oxfam's research into climate change and inequality underlined the reality that poor women are least responsible for the problems of climate change, yet feel the impact the most.

What can we do? We can ensure women have access to sexual and reproductive health services, including abortion. We can strengthen women's rights organizations to improve advocacy efforts. We can reduce poverty by giving rural women and girls the tools and skills they need to adapt to climate change, and ensure proper sanitation to reduce the mosquito's habitat. We can prioritize projects that bring health clinics to poor communities, and support large-scale municipal responses to slow the spread of disease. We can do all of these things that will help women to cope with the impacts of this virus, but will also help them to weather future problems.

If Zika does cause microcephaly, the potential impact is terrifying. In Haiti alone, there are 200,000 pregnant women at any given time. In Central America, the rate of teen pregnancy is extremely high with as many as 137 in 1000 babies born to teen mothers. The World Health Organization has warned that close to four million people around the world could become infected with Zika. That the virus might also be spread sexually is another frightening possibility.

Whatever path the virus takes, this we know: The impact will be hardest on poor women. Addressing women's rights must become an urgent priority for our world, because until that happens, poor women will continue to bear the brunt of every global crisis that emerges.

Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook


Zika Virus Symptoms