Women must be at the centre of the response to the Zika virus, says UN Women Executive Director

Statement by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women


Every day, more women and girls in Latin America and elsewhere are being infected by the Zika virus. The public response must recognize the impact of the epidemic in women’s lives, and ensure that their health and social needs are met.

Women are caregivers to the young and the old; they are mothers, workers, sexual partners and community leaders. As we saw in the recent Ebola outbreaks, women are also the quiet frontline for care of the sick, and the essential primary network for distribution of information about how to avoid ill-health and what to do in case of infection.

UN Women is working with a wide range of partners, including the World Health Organization, other UN agencies, governments, civil society and the business community in the response to the Zika virus epidemic. We prioritize young people as active partners in the fight against Zika and in promoting wider participation. We aim to ensure that women are empowered, their contributions to the response recognized, and their rights and health—including their sexual and reproductive rights—kept firmly at the centre of the response in a supportive policy and legal environment. Our work includes mobilizing women’s organizations and networks to work in their communities, schools and workplaces to provide information and support, to minimize infection, and to influence positive policies at the municipal, State and national level. It also involves calling for, and participating in, research that incorporates a gender perspective.

Reports indicate that 52 countries have been affected so far, from French Polynesia to Cape Verde and 29 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean. Two countries, Colombia and Brazil, have recorded the majority of cases of Zika virus infection. In Brazil, 65 per cent of Zika infection cases in the State of Bahia are women [1]. In Colombia, women account for 67 per cent of the total of 37,011 people affected, the majority of who are between the age of 20 and 34 years [2].

The initial indications that women are the majority of those infected with Zika virus are a stark reminder that disease epidemics tend to intensify vulnerabilities among already-marginalized and at-risk populations. It is the women who are poor, least educated with little access to services, who are most at risk. The Ebola epidemics clearly demonstrated the need for a focus on adolescent girls and young women and underlined the further dangers for mothers and children alike of stigma, exclusion and abandonment when associated with disease and its spread.

The World Health Organization and scientific partners are tackling crucial public health uncertainties such as the cause of the upsurge in cases of microcephaly and other alterations of the neurological system, and whether Zika virus can be transmitted other than by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito, such as through sexual contact.

The women of Brazil, Colombia and other Zika-affected countries need clear and factual information about how and why to protect themselves and their families from mosquitoes, from infection and from unintended pregnancies. Their ability to safely control whether, and when, to become pregnant requires legal access to reproductive health services, including contraceptives and pregnancy terminations, and counselling as well as comprehensive sexuality education.

The high rates of unintended pregnancies in Latin America (over 50 per cent [3]) reflect restricted access to contraception and high rates of sexual violence alongside constraints in access to safe and legal reproductive health and rights. There is a vital role for men to play in preventing pregnancies, supporting women’s choices and involving themselves in the care of their children.

So far, 583 cases of microcephaly have been confirmed in Brazil, with over 4,000 cases still under investigation. Families are doing their best to cope with the increased burden of care of children born with microcephaly and urgently need access to appropriate social protection and medical services for ongoing care.

It appears that women in Latin America are resorting to unsafe pregnancy terminations, raising fears for their well-being. Lifting the limitations on services at this critical time could make a substantial difference to the lives of women. Lawmakers and the judiciary have a crucial role in this and can enable flexibility in cases where women's psychological, physical and social health are at risk.

Just a few months ago, the governments of the world agreed on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, with gender equality and women’s empowerment at its centre. Top-level leadership committed to “leave no one behind”. This is the opportunity for governments and the United Nations to involve women’s machineries and women´s organizations in an effective, rights-based response, and to demonstrate the true meaning of the centrality of women to the new agenda.


[1] Data analysis from the State of Bahia monitoring system. Ministry of Health, Brazil.

[2] National Institute of Health, Ministry of Health and Social Protection, Colombia.

[3] Sedgh G, Singh S, Hussain R. Intended and unintended pregnancies worldwide in 2012 and recent trends. Stud Fam Plann 2014; 45:301-14.