Don’t Get Pregnant! Analyzing El Salvador’s Response to Zika

close-up-of-mosquitoesBy Lauren Jencik, MALD ’16

Latin America’s Zika outbreak continues to raise alarms, due to the appearance of microcephaly in newborns from mothers infected with the virus, and shocking responses from public officials. Most notably, El Salvador’s Deputy Minister of Health Eduardo Espionza made the following statement on January 21: “We’d like to suggest to all the women of fertile age that they take steps to plan their pregnancies, and avoid getting pregnant between this year and next.”[1] Essentially, women were told to avoid pregnancy until 2018 to prevent the birth of infants with microcephaly. When we break down Espinoza’s statement, it’s clear that he is making explicit and implicit assumptions about gender in El Salvador and conveys a need to control women’s reproductive systems and ensure they remain bound by expectations of domesticity and motherhood.

A male member of the government directly telling his country’s female population to avoid pregnancy reflects expectations of Salvadoran femininity and masculinity. The lack of language urging men to take measures to prevent impregnating women implies that reproductive choices do not apply to men–despite the very obvious biological fact that men are required to produce a child. Thus women are held accountable for controlling male sexual desires and bear all responsibility for avoiding pregnancy. This assumption feeds into the notion that women alone belong in the domestic and “natural space” because “in bearing children women create new ‘things’ naturally,” as opposed to men who are typically identified with culture as they are free to create things culturally.[2] In other words, men do not inhabit the natural sphere. By existing in the so called cultural space, they influence norms and policies that shape society and thus have more power. Thus, a (male) member of the government advising women on their reproductive choices reflects an inequality.

Furthermore, the characterization of women in Espinoza’s statement as being of fertile age makes explicit assumptions about femininity. The decision to label women as fertile suggests that women, who are physically able, will have children. In El Salvador, deeply rooted feminine ideals consist of sexual purity, marriage, and motherhood and are tied to the influence of Catholicism in the country.[3] By contrast, masculinity is attributed to ideals of being the primary breadwinner of the family[4] and the more hyper-masculine concept machismo, which influences the normalization of sexual dominance and violence toward women.[5] This hyper-masculinity holds at an individual level in which a women is “the object of male heterosexual desire,” but also is contextualized at a more national level under the greater “service of construction of nationhood.”[6] Thus, control over women’s sexual and reproductive health is subject to discretion by men for both individual sexual desires and national concerns over ‘birthing the nation.’

Understanding how El Salvador’s embrace of reproductive governance shapes its national discourse reflects expectations of gender roles. Reproductive governance refers to the means in which various state and religious actors can coerce or invoke moral and ethical statements to control reproductive behaviors.[7] It is widely known that El Salvador is one of the few countries that does not allow abortion under any circumstance. A ‘good’ woman is not sexually promiscuous and has abortions. Rather, she will produce future members of the Salvadoran nation, and serve as a good wife to her husband. Much of this rationale is grounded in the hugely influential Catholic Church’s teachings. Catholicism’s rejection of contraceptives, as interfering with God’s will, and abortion as a means of taking the life of someone (who is entitled to the right to life), has had a tremendous impact on El Salvador as evidenced in the criminalization of abortion. This broader social context, through which reproductive governance holds, effectively impacts women and men differently.

All of this is further complicated by Espinoza’s statement; women are being told not to perform their expected gender role in a country where a masculinized state has made it challenging to fulfill Espinoza’s directive. This is made more difficult for women of lower socio-economic status. Rather than view women in El Salvador as one homogenous group, one must consider the interaction of gender and socio-economic status in light of Espinoza’s statement to delay pregnancy. Thus, when considering the differences in socio-economic status, the the implications of Espinoza’s statement are especially problematic for poorer women in El Salvador due to to the additional barriers they may face.

Regardless of the fact that contraceptives are available in the country, women living in poverty, particularly those in rural areas, are especially impacted. As has been suggested, women in El Salvador already face a tremendous burden under the expectation that they alone will avoid pregnancy. However, when considering other variables in a country with a slow GDP growth rate and a poverty level of approximately 30%, it is clear that the Deputy Minister of Health’s statement has major implications for poor women.[9] For example, women in poorer and rural communities may lack awareness of measures to prevent contracting Zika due to the lack of available information. Also, El Salvador’s tropical climate, particularly in more rural areas, increases the likelihood of women’s exposure to mosquitos and the virus. If these women lack the means to purchase contraceptives and/or must travel far to a health clinic, they are especially at a disadvantage in trying to access the proper resources to delay pregnancy.

Amidst El Salvador’s uncertainty and panic over Zika’s impact on fetal development, telling women to delay pregnancy reveals pervasive gender inequality. The assumption, by a state that controls women’s reproductive systems, that women have the means and agency to delay pregnancy ignores the reality of gender norms and expectations. Constructions of masculinity and femininity, reflected in national discourse and shaped by religious teaching, render women, particularly poor women, at a disadvantage in trying to comply with Espinoza’s statement. Without regard for these realities, Espinoza’s directive to women in El Salvador thus fails to resolve any concerns about Zika and only instills fear in women.

Lauren Jencik is a first year MALD candidate focusing on Gender Analysis in International Studies and International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution. She can be reached at lauren.jencik@tufts.edu

[1] Nelson Renteria, ” El Salvador urges against pregnancies until 2018 as Zika virus spreads,” Reuters, January 21, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-zika-el-salvador-idUSKCN0UZ2SP.

[2] Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, (Sage: 1997), 6.

[3] Amnesty International, “On the Brink of Death: Violence Against Women and the Abortion Ban in El Salvador” (AMR 29/003/2014, London, 2014), https://www.amnestyusa.org/sites/default/files/el_salvador_report_-_on_the_brink_of_death.pdf, 17.

[4] While this expectation may hold, in reality it is difficult to attain, given the lingering impacts of war and prevalence of gangs on El Salvador’s economy. Thus, gang membership is high among men.

[5] Lina Lakhani, ” El Salvador’s Zika crisis compounded by failings of state, violence and machismo” The Guardian, February 12, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/feb/12/el-salvador-zika-crisis-compounded-by-failings-of-state-violence-and-machismo.

[6] Todd Reeser, Masculinities in Theory, (Wiley Blackwell: 2009), 188.

[7] Lynn M. Morgan and Elizabeth F.S. Roberts, “Reproductive Governance in Latin America,” Anthropology and Medicine, 19, no. 2 (2012): 243.

[8] Amnesty International, 12.

[9] “El Salvador,” The World Bank, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/elsalvador.

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