Women's Health Matters

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A call to action on the oppression of girls and women around the world

By Patricia Nicholson

Grim statistics illustrate that it persists despite campaigns, policies and legislation: the worldwide oppression of women and girls.

In an editorial published in the medical journal BMJ, Janice Du Mont, EdD, a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute (WCRI), and Deborah White, PhD, a sociologist at Trent University, issue a call to action on gendered oppression – not just to governments and state organizations, but to individuals.

The editorial calls the oppression of women and girls “insidious, systemic, and widespread.” Examples from industrialized and non-industrialized countries include not only violence, rape and abuse, but also human trafficking for sexual exploitation, female infanticide, honour killings, forced prostitution, and lack of health-care services that might prevent hundreds of thousands of deaths in childbirth. Its prevalence means that it touches everyone in some way.

“Everyone can take an interest in this issue: everyone has a mother, sister, daughter or friend who, for example, may have been – or will be – impacted by abuse,” says Dr. Du Mont, whose research in the Violence and Health Research Program at WCRI focuses on gender-based violence and women’s health.

“It is important that we raise our voices to ensure that abuse and neglect of women and girls is high on the agendas of national and international bodies, as well as that the resources and funds are there to address and prevent these problems.”

Just as individuals must make themselves heard by organizations and agencies, those organizations and agencies must also embrace more effective ways to engage the general public in working to end gendered oppression. Elements of popular culture may play a role in generating that type of engagement.

“We believe that campaigns, policies, laws and treaties are important, but that they might be made more effective if state organizations capitalized on the interest generated by popular books,” says Dr. White, a sociologist specializing in both popular culture and violence against women. One example is Half the Sky, a book by journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn that garnered media attention and became a national bestseller in the United States.

Because the editorial was commissioned by BMJ, a publication for doctors and other health-care professionals, it pays special attention to the role of the health sector in recognizing and calling attention to gender-based oppression.

“Although many of these issues were actually first made visible through the efforts and experiences of women working on the front lines,” Dr. Du Mont explains, “health sector involvement has been important, as violence is linked to many different negative physical and psychological outcomes, and agencies such as the World Health Organization have made it a priority to address and prevent the neglect and abuse of women and children.”

Given the prevalence of gendered violence, this is an issue that most health-care professionals encounter in their own communities and in their practices, Dr. Du Mont explains. By collaborating with other sectors such as education, justice and social welfare, they can help to ensure that the best services are available to women and girls who need them.     

Because ending gendered oppression is not just an issue for policy-makers, addressing the gender inequality that underlies the issue requires involvement at all levels, right down to individuals, including men and boys.

“There are many opportunities to join community-level efforts to raise awareness and end violence. For example, men can join the White Ribbon Campaign,” Dr. Du Mont says. Libraries and the Internet have excellent resources for further information on gendered oppression.

“Many organizations working to improve the lives of women and children worldwide – such as Amnesty International – have websites that are full of important information and ways in which people can become involved.”

Dr. Du Mont and Dr. White’s editorial was published online in BMJ on Sept. 28, 2011.


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