The 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil begin in less than a month. Social and political unrest has already caused many to call for the cancellation of the event. These voices are rapidly being joined by others concerned about the ongoing Zika crisis and the possibility of further transmission of the virus. Considered the epicenter of the Zika outbreak, Brazil has seen the most cases of Zika infections and has, as a result, seen an increase in the number of babies born with microcephaly, a side effect affecting the fetus of pregnant women who become infected with the virus.
WITNESS recently interviewed documentarian and WITNESS ally, Debora Diniz, whose most recent film Zika uniquely uses film to give an intimate portrayal of the women affected by the virus in Brazil. Zika tells the story of five women from Paraíba whose children were born with anencephaly or microcephaly as a result of the Zika virus and documents their struggles as they navigate the ongoing crisis plaguing the country.
WITNESS: What are your advocacy goals for this film? Why do you think video is the best medium to help you achieve these goals?
Debora Diniz: The film gives faces and biographies to the epidemic that the Brazilian government insists on describing as a matter of numbers and mosquitoes. This public health tragedy affects women, but not all women – they are the poorest and most vulnerable women living in the northeast of the country. We need to know who they are. We need to see how the epidemic violates their rights to then be able to work on social policies and health protection measures, such as access to information, family planning including access to contraceptives and safe abortion, and social protection for children with disabilities and their caregivers.
What has been the overall reception from the public to Zika since it’s release in Brazil?
The overall reception has been intense and diverse. Some people watch it in absolute silence and some people get emotional. In both cases, I believe the film is fulfilling its purpose, which is to show the reality of the epidemic to those who, although living in the country most affected by the Zika virus, are far from suffering its difficult effects.
The women in the film are very brave for allowing their struggles to be documented so openly. What do you hope the impact will be in showcasing these struggles? Have you seen an impact already?
The goal of the film is to show that this epidemic is causing irreversible damage in the lives of women, specifically many poor and vulnerable women. For the audiences to whom the film was already shown, it was possible to see its immediate effect in raising awareness for a debate that unfortunately has been hidden in the country’s political crisis. It takes more than awareness, however, and I hope the Zika epidemic can return to the center of the national political agenda.
In the film, we are introduced to Ana Angelica Lima whose daughter was born with microcephaly. She discusses the struggle she is facing in getting car service to and from the clinic where her daughter is receiving early stimulations sessions, and her ongoing struggle to fight for her daughter’s right to proper care. Did you find this to be a common struggle for mothers with children born with microcephaly?
Yes, for all women I met in the Sertão region of Brazil with children affected by Zika, this is unfortunately a common routine. They live hundreds of kilometers away from the nearest health center, depend on inefficient public transportation, and have to travel for hours for a medical appointment that, although crucial, lasts only for a few minutes. Not to mention the difficulty in accessing social benefits to which they are entitled and which are necessary for survival in these circumstances. This is the daily battle these women face.
Do you think the Brazilian government is doing enough to support the families suffering from this epidemic? Or the doctors who are struggling to help these families?
There is a difference between what the Brazilian government is taking up as its responsibility, and what doctors have taken upon themselves as their personal cause. The doctors I met in Campina Grande spare no effort or devotion to these women and children. Their commitment to daily healthcare and to the search for answers about the epidemic is permanent and genuine,but what they do is a solitary endeavor. The Brazilian State has not been able to put women and children at the center of the public health concern regarding the Zika epidemic.
More on Debora Diniz:
An anthropologist by training, Debora Diniz is now a professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Brasília, in Brazil. In 2010, Diniz published the first national survey on abortion in Brazil (National Abortion Research), which was awarded by PAHO in 2011 for public health excellence. Debora is a long-time WITNESS ally, participating in WITNESS’ 2008 Video Advocacy Institute, and a leading creator of video for change in Brazil. She has strong advocacy experience working with the Brazilian Supreme Court on cases involving abortion, marriage equality, secularism and the state, and stem cell research. She is now directly involved in the Zika virus epidemic and reproductive rights in Brazil.
Aimee Martinez is the Program and Executive Assistant at WITNESS.