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Zika Reminds Us That Climate Change Is a Women’s Rights Issue

The swift spread of the Zika virus has thrown into sharp relief women’s vulnerability to ecological crisis.

By Eleanor Johnson


Infants born with microcephaly at a meeting for mothers of children with special needs on June 2, 2016 in Recife, Brazil. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The reportedly “explosive” increase in Zika cases in Puerto Rico has got me worried that we may be looking at a lost generation of women unless we do something serious and fast about global warming and its impact on viral spread.

I’m a scholar of medieval literature and culture, so I’m used to thinking about women as a site of historical loss and erasure. In the Middle Ages, women made up about half the population, just as they do now. But we have records written by or about only a tiny fraction of these women — most of them nuns or aristocrats. The vast majority of women in the pre-modern era are simply silenced by historical circumstances: lack of literacy, lack of resources, shorter lifespans, lack of opportunity for self-expression, lack of role models, and so on. Though we might think that, in the modern age, we are immune to that kind of massive demographic silencing, we’d be wrong.

The Zika virus has, once again, reminded me of women’s fundamental vulnerability to historical silencing, a vulnerability born of a dozen other risk factors. Women are vulnerable to governments that get quagmired in political debates — perfectly illustrated by the United States government’s failure to allocate meaningful funds to the search for a Zika vaccine because the bill that called for the funding excluded Planned Parenthood. The swift spread of the Zika virus has thrown into sharp relief women’s vulnerability to ecological crisis. Unless a vaccine is found soon, the virus will eventually infect more and more women of child-bearing age, not just in poor areas in the global south, but around the world as well. The reason? Climate change.

The burden will fall disproportionately on women: Global warming promotes rapid viral spread, and women suffer disproportionately from the spread of viruses.

As the New York Times recently pointed out in a terrifying infographic, the number of scorchingly hot days per year is increasing rapidly throughout the U.S. An increasing number of scorching days means a lower number of cold days, and we need cold temperatures to get mosquitoes to die off at the end of the year. What all this means is that Zika — and other viruses like it — are likely to become a year-round problem for all of North America and, eventually, probably the whole world. Further, the burden will fall disproportionately on women: Global warming promotes rapid viral spread, and women suffer disproportionately from the spread of viruses.

One reason for this disproportionate suffering is that women are anatomically more prone to contracting sexually transmitted viruses than men are. But viruses don’t need to be sexually transmitted in order to fall particularly heavily on women: Viruses affect children, and, therefore, throughout the world, when children take an epidemiological hit, women are left to serve as primary caregivers and pick up the pieces. (This is not to say that men don’t participate in their care, but simply that, in most of the world, the primary quotidian responsibility of keeping children alive falls to women.) When viruses rage around the world on the backs of different kinds of vectors, be they mosquitoes, mice, deer, dogs, corvids, or humans, children are inevitably a high-risk population for contracting the illness. In the case of Zika, of course, fetuses in utero are, in fact, the preferential tissue target of the virus. But in the case of many, many other viruses, high fevers and lack of medications to treat the infection make young children particularly vulnerable. Moreover, of course, very young children simply don’t have the immune systems required to fight off strong pathogens. As throughout history, when children are vulnerable, women are vulnerable, since women — not just mothers, but aunts, sisters, and grandmothers — tend to be primary caregivers.

Women are vulnerable not just to contracting viruses from their children, but also to economic losses that result from days spent away from work when they’re taking care of their children. And it is not at all hard to imagine social losses women will incur in the case of rapid and wide Zika spread. As the spread of diseases becomes harder to combat, with fewer and fewer areas experiencing the cold seasons that tend to reduce global numbers of viral vectors, it may become increasingly prudent for children in particularly hard-hit areas to be kept out of school, thus avoiding the possibility of contracting viruses from classmates. Should this happen, women will undoubtedly resume their historical role of at-home teachers, but in this scenario would spend more time isolated from peers than they otherwise might — an isolation that, as Betty Friedan argued decades ago in The Feminine Mystique, leads to depression and dissatisfaction. In the specific case of Zika itself, the situation is darker still: Women who deliver full-term Zika-infected babies will have radically altered life prospects themselves, dominated by the agony of caring for a child who will not thrive. We may be looking at a generation of children in which many are tragically disabled before they are even born, and thus at a generation of women whose social, economic, and mental well-being is nowhere near what it could be.

Zika is just the beginning. Increasing global temperatures will eventually wreak unimaginable havoc on the viral fingerprint of the Earth. Fewer vector die-offs, rising water levels that create habitats for viruses, migration into cities as rural areas become too remote and too hot to inhabit — all of these conditions combine to create a petri-dish planet, with conditions perfect for the proliferation and diversification of viruses. The current spread of yellow fever through Angola and Congo, and the realization that it may soon spread east and north on the backs of the same mosquitoes that carry Zika, should have us all petrified. Particularly, again, women: Babies under the age of 9 months are not recommended for yellow fever vaccination, even though babies under that age are prone to severe encephalopathy complications resulting from the disease; pregnant women are discouraged from receiving the vaccine as well, due to the possibility of fetal complications.

This is not a situation we can allow to proceed unchecked. Climate change is not just about melting ice caps and drowning cities, though those situations are already frightening enough. It’s also about there being nowhere left to hide from contagion. It’s about the world’s vulnerable populations — here, I’ve talked mainly about women and secondarily about children, but it’s also true of poor people and old people — having absolutely no recourse.

Climate change is not just about melting ice caps and drowning cities. It’s also about there being nowhere left to hide from contagion. It’s about the world’s vulnerable populations — including women — having no recourse.

To prevent a human catastrophe, major governmental bodies — like the United Nations, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — need to be devoting serious resources and attention to medical hot-spotting: identifying areas of new and dangerous contagion, and immediately devoting resources to combatting that contagion, rather than waiting to see if it will spread elsewhere. Because it will spread elsewhere, as we have learned both from the Zika example and, now, from yellow fever.

No one is going to escape the coming heat. We need a new attitude whereby we treat local illnesses in far-off places as though our next-door neighbor has just contracted something lethal and highly contagious. We need to design vaccines and fast-track their production, not “just in case” a virus becomes a global problem, but because we should know by now that it will become a problem. Concomitantly, we need to develop medical and social infrastructures to help women and children, and fund those infrastructures we already have. For instance, in the U.S., Planned Parenthood should be equipped with Zika testing kits, and, globally, hospitals providing pre-natal care should be able to offer the kinds of anti-viral drugs recently shown to be effective in blocking some of Zika’s physiological actions. If we fail to do any of these things, we are looking at a lost generation of women — and, quite possibly, many other lost generations of women thereafter.

This may sound hyperbolic — the idea that an entire generation of women could be silenced by circumstances — but it shouldn’t. Historically speaking, it’s been the norm, more than it’s been the exception.

In my field of study, women’s voices are largely erased from the historical record. Pre-modern women were too busy with domestic labor and childcare, too busy dying young in childbirth, too unlettered, too oppressed by circumstances, to make a voice for themselves. I would do a lot to have access to any record at all of the daily experience, feelings, ambitions, and ideas of the average woman in the Middle Ages. I feel that absence from the historical record perhaps more keenly because I myself am fortunate enough to have been born in New York City in the late 1970s — a place and time of possibly historically unprecedented freedom, as a female person, to express myself, to pursue my hopes and desires, to stand up and be counted in public, as a participant in the drama of the world. And now I find myself and my generation of women perched on an impossible precipice, where it is all too easy to imagine the rapid loss of that voice and that participation in the public sphere. A loss driven by the kinds of energetic, physical, mental, and social sequestrations that will ensue if we do anything other than everything we possibly can to combat global pandemics and the global warming that foments them.