Yesterday, I attended Healthy Women: Gateway to a Healthy World , a panel discussion on global health care and health policy for women and girls sponsored by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women (CSW) and the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs.
The panel featured two interesting speakers: former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders and Dr. Padmini Murthy of the International Medical Women’s Association. While both women spoke compellingly about the health issues facing today’s women and girls, both came to the table with two very different contexts for their work: Dr. Elders’ perspective on women’s health (particularly on adolescent women’s health) focused on domestic issues and policy, while Dr. Murthy represented a more global perspective on women’s health issues. However, despite their differing careers and contexts for understanding women’s health issues, I walked away from the panel with an understanding that making progress on issues of women’s health remains, at a fundamental level, a challenge of attitude and articulation.
Let me tell you what I mean by giving you some snippets from the panelists and identifying some similarities in their strategies moving forward.
Dr. Elders grew up as an African-American in the rural south before the civil rights era. She had never seen a doctor (other than on television) until she went away to college. “You can’t be what you can’t see,” Dr. Elders said. Of course, Dr. Elders went on to build a successful career being, among other things, a forceful advocate for the health of women and young people in the United States.
During the panel discussion, Dr. Elders focused on teen pregnancy, pointing out that the U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the industrialized world, and that the most common cause of poverty is children “becoming parents before they become adults.” In tackling teen pregnancy and other health issues affecting women, she advocated for the development of a strategy to change attitudes by, for one thing, implementing more comprehensive sexual education programs in schools that begin earlier. She also repeated her infamous statement that teens should be encouraged to masturbate, and added that “80% of women masturbate, 95% of men masturbate, and the rest lie.”
Dr. Padmini Murthy also argued for a comprehensive approach to women’s health, citing the unfortunate tendency to compartmentalize issues without seeing the connections between them. During her presentation, Dr. Murthy made connections between some of the most devastating threats to women’s health, including maternal mortality, unsafe abortion, HIV/AIDS, and gender-based violence. In discussing culturally accepted forms of gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation, acid throwing, and child marriage, she drove home the point cultural attitudes must shift before we achieve a just and healthy life for every woman and girl.
While the two panelists had worked on women’s health within two different contexts, their solutions for women’s health issues were markedly similar. Both identified education as a necessary tool to change behaviors and attitudes that that allow women’s health to remain in jeopardy, including treatment programs for abusers and comprehensive sexuality education for both men and women, boys and girls.
In the end, I realized that while issues affecting women’s health and rights can vary within regions, families and communities, their origins and solutions do not. Conceptualizing women as property, valuing virginity and purity over health and human rights, and mis-educating or under-educating women and young people about their own health and rights are all different sides of one problematic coin- a coin with an attitude problem, if you will.
While governments, funders and agencies, including the UN’s Economic and Social Council, have been looking at the issues of health in more depth than usual, in order for this increased attention to translate into improvements in women’s lives, there must be a real shift in attitudes and articulation. Moving forward, we must employ the strategies put forth by Dr. Elders and Dr. Murthy to combat the common threats to women’s health and human rights both domestically and globally.