by Jessica Kutz, Friendship Bridge field intern
As the magnitude of the Zika virus increases, we are left with a question: What do we do now? In the case of women in the United States that means visiting your local gynecologist, deciding on a contraception option, and being thankful you don’t live in Central America.
Why thankful? Because many women in Central America face numerous obstacles to controlling their reproductive health. The two main barriers are a culture of discrimination toward women and lack of access to adequate healthcare and contraception. This means that battling Zika and taking the correct precautions isn’t necessarily an option for most women in Central America
With a strong patriarchal culture in countries like Guatemala, women have few choices in regard to their reproductive health. Husbands often feel that they should be in control of their family size, and therefore they restrict whether a woman is able to use contraception. There is also a widespread sentiment that women are being unfaithful if they feel the need to use contraception, and this can anger husbands. Unfortunately, anger usually translates into domestic violence. In fact, gender-related violence is at an all-time high in Guatemala, which ranks third in the world for femicide – defined as “the murder of a person based on the fact that she is female. ”
In addition to this inherent discrimination against women, healthcare access is also a major challenge that disproportionately affects women, particularly those in rural communities. Staff in health clinics do not generally speak the local Mayan languages, making health education and access to resources particularly difficult for Mayan women who speak one of Guatemala’s 24 indigenous languages. As a result of this lack of education and access to women’s healthcare, Guatemala also has the lowest contraception usage rate in all of Central America. Guatemala was one of five countries that actually ran out of contraception in 2015.
This is why Friendship Bridge believes so strongly in working solely with women, especially indigenous women in rural communities. Friendship Bridge aims to empower women through microcredit, education, and health services. In particular, our Salud para la Vida program for women’s preventive health is overcoming obstacles like those mentioned above through health education and access to culturally sensitive preventive health services for our clients. Salud para la Vida provides women with family planning options, which allows them to take control of their reproductive rights. We are ensuring our clients are empowered to remain in control of their health when health crises like Zika hit.