One Hundred Years of Women Doctors

Over the next ten years, various women’s medical organizations from around the world will be celebrating their centenaries. I was contemplating this while attending the Centenary of Britain’s Medical Women’s Federation last week. The American Medical Women’s Association celebrated its Centennial in 2015. The Federation of Medical Women of Canada was founded in 1924 and the Australian Medical Women’s Federation formed in 1927 even though Australia’s first medical women’s society was founded in 1896. In 2019, the international body to which all these associations belong, Medical Women’s International Association, will celebrate 100 years of operation, the oldest international medical association. Many of these organizations took as their inspiration the women’s suffrage movement – the theme colours of Britain’s Medical Women’s Federation are exactly those of Britain’s suffragette movement.

This means that there have been one hundred years of women physicians’ influence on medicine and health care. What has this meant for health and for the status of women physicians?

From the beginning of medical women’s organizing activity, women doctors have concerned themselves with the health of women and children and with advocating for opportunities for women doctors. All told, most of these women doctors’ organizations would likely believe that they have been more successful on behalf of their patients than on their own behalf.

Despite growing numbers of women in medicine, women continue to be underrepresented in the highest paid specialties, in university professorships, in clinical leadership positions and in most other medical leadership roles. This is true even in those countries in which women have formed the majority of the medical workforce for many years, such as China and Russia. The underrepresentation of women in powerful medical roles is of such concern in most first world medical women’s organizations that advancing the position of women doctors has become a primary concern for most of these organizations. “Equal pay for work of equal value” has its own meaning for women doctors!

As for health and healthcare, medical women and medical women’s organizations have championed women’s and children’s health, and especially women’s reproductive health. A look at the websites of any of the national organizations listed above will demonstrate this important work. The work of the members of Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) has been so noteworthy that its projects have ensured that it has official working relations with the World Health Organization (W.H.O.).  MWIA also maintains Category II Status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and is involved in the Immunization Programmes of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). MWIA is represented in all three of the United Nation Centers, New York and Geneva by Permanent Representatives. MWIA is a Founding Member of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) and continues to be actively involved in that organization. MWIA also sends representatives to the European Women’s Lobby.

The projects of the various national organizations and of MWIA itself are as varied as its members. In recent years, MWIA has worked with ZONTA to distribute birthing kits to those women in poor countries who have their babies at home, often without any birth attendant – not even a neighbour. As well, one Past President, Dr. Gabrielle Caspar of Australia has collected ultrasound machines in that country to deliver to African countries. MWIA members from around the world are compiling a series of typical cases of intimate partner violence into a training manual for use around the world. The cases will cover an unprecedented example of cultural and social impact on intimate partner violence.

One hundred years ago, at the time that women around the world began to insist on a role in government by means of the vote, women doctors began to insist on a role in medicine that would allow them to have the impact on health, and especially women’s and children’s health, that was needed to improve health standards in general. These pioneering women physicians realized that healthcare must be equal for all. They fought for it then and continue to champion the same goals today.

(Note: The above photo is of the original members of MWIA in Geneva, Switzerland at the time of their founding meeting.)

Women’s Rights and Medical Women

Most of us know that the world’s leaders met this past weekend at the United Nations to discuss and commit to sustainable development goals. They formally agreed to a set of goals that they hope to bring to completion by 2030: http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=51968#.VgkpN3ldGUk

This was the second agreement of its kind, the first agreement, the United Nations’ Millenium Development Project, was launched in 2000 and, since that time, women’s groups have been measuring the extent to which these lofty goals have been addressed. These goals are outlined here and even a brief review will show that many are related to women’s empowerment and women’s health. The changes with this first set of goal have been so slow that one might wonder whether just building another set of goals will truly help. http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/2015_MDG_Report/pdf/MDG%202015%20Summary%20web_english.pdf

When one considers the Sustainable Development Goals developed for 2030, wondering if they can possibly be achieved, it is worth looking through the photographs on the link. Once you have, you will realize that most of the leaders discussing these are men. There are a few notable women, like Angela Merkel, but mostly men. Truthfully, on the ground, most of those actually working on the goals, getting their hands dirty and their egos bruised, are women and I want to be sure that their voices were heard and their suggestions included.

Each year at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, we gather into our groups and negotiate to improve and strengthen the statement and listen to talks about interventions that are succeeding in one goal. We cobble together an acceptable document only to have some state that does not value women remove certain key proposals or statements. Which states will hold women back? These include some of the Middle Eastern States and, of course, the Holy See.

Both sets of sustainable development goals are embraced by women’s groups for they represented the kind of world we wanted to leave for our children and grandchildren. Whatever the politics, it seemed as if women were more likely to get past it and get on with the work.

Women physicians, through Medical Women’s International Association, have always been involved in the consideration and development of the sustainable development goals. Each year a delegation attends the Commission on the Status of Women and lobbies for the inclusion of the most effective measures. While the progress is slow year to year, it is building. It is building to a point in the same way that women’s suffrage did. While medical women from every corner of the globe come together to provide evidence based care so that more girls and women are able to lead healthy, happy lives in careers of their choice, the world will be a better place.

This past weekend, the Federation of Medical Women of Canada met in Toronto. Like all women physicians groups, they are working toward those goals, focused on those very real Canadian concerns: poverty, domestic violence and, now, the arrival of Syrian refugees. Their numbers wax and wane as women do not always see the value of defending women’s rights until something happens to them personally to remind them that there are still barriers to woman’s advancement and equality.

At this Federation meeting, Canada’s women doctors were joined by doctors from around the world, the Executive Committee of Medical Women’s International Association. This group includes not only North American women but also women from Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. This group knows the hardship women face in getter better healthcare for themselves and their families on a daily basis and they work to improve health conditions for all.

These women are today’s suffragettes, although they are fighting for women’s status not just votes. They are also no longer going on hunger strikes. Rather, they are travelling to the United Nations and the World Health Organization and to the corners of the globe to ensure that there is a strong healthcare cornerstone in the building of women’s empowerment. Take a look at their website www.mwia.net Be inspired!

United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Session 59

Each year hundreds of women from around the world attend the UN Commission on the Status of Women. I attended for my sixth year and found the program to be as exciting as ever, making me wish I had more than the two days I was able to participate.

As a delegate for a Non-Governmental Organization, specifically Medical Women’s International Association, the main task is to find out what the United Nations, individual member nations and other NGO’s have been doing during the previous year. In addition to this review, this year’s meeting was a time to reflect on the progress that has been made in the world since the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in 1995 in Beijing: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/  What was important about the Beijing Conference, as compared with the previous three, was the development by delegates of a Platform for Action, with goals of achieving greater equality and opportunity for women. This is a link to the Platform for Action: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf

This year’s Commission was meant to consider the progress that has been made toward these goals and Medical Women’s International Association(MWIA) held a Parallel Event entitled The Role of MWIA in Promoting Health and Reproductive Rights since Beijing and Beyond. Other than MWIA presenters, we were fortunate to be able to hear about the work of H.E. Professor Malgorzata Fuszara, the Polish Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment and of Ruchira Gupta, Apne Aap Founder and Woman of Distinction Awardee NGOCSWNY 2015. Here are links to a two-part series to Professor Gupta’s work from PBS Newshour: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/police-inaction-human-trafficking-india/ and http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/rescue-girls-sex-trafficking-indian-activists-confront-tradition-family-ties/

For my contribution to the MWIA Parallel event, I reflected on incidents at university campuses in both Canada and the United States in which young women have been aggressively sexually harassed or assaulted and the culture of Guyland that is failing to prevent these actions. I believe that it is important for us to reflect on these incidents which are occurring among the most wealthy and privileged young people and ask ourselves why we have not been successful in making universities a safe place for young women. In examining these incidents, researchers have been able to develop some possible areas of study to eliminate these threats. Also, I wanted to focus on what women’s organizations in particular can do to improve safety on campus.

In order to understand why this issue concerns me, studies indicate that 25% of young women are victims of sexual aggression in North American Universities and 33% experience “stressful sexual harassment”. This is in the context of underreporting, which we know is standard for both sexual assault and sexual harassment. Naturally,recommendations include seeking better data in further studies, but they also include education with respect to what constitutes sexual assault and sexual harassment, which is concerning given the level of education, knowledge and sophistication of the young men and women at universities. This recommendation, which is consistent in all of the centres, truly suggests that neither young men nor young women understand what constitutes sexual assault and sexual harassment. Fundamentally, what does our culture promote as normal sexual relations since sexual assault and sexual harassment are not clearly understood. This vignette, reported by Newsner, does indicate the level of ignorance I wanted those attending the parallel event to consider: http://www.newsner.com/en/2015/03/a-boy-sexually-assaulted-her-daughter-in-school-her-reaction-omg-she-is-amazing/

It was gratifying that medical and graduate students attending the event approached me afterword with their own stories of exactly the kind of harassment we were discussing. A number said that they were unaware of how their own institutions actually support young men and women facing sexual exploitation, and that they were going to find out. For me, that’s a good enough outcome for this year’s Commission on the Status of Women. When you look at the progress in women’s rights in the past twenty years, it’s best not to set the bar too high.

Reflection on the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW58)

This year I spent a full week at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women –  CSW58.It was my most intense experience with this work, including many meetings and sessions to attend as well as parallel events and side events.

My goals at the Commission on the Status of Women are simple. I want to get to know and understand the work that the permanent representatives of Medical Women’s International Association (MWIA) are doing so that MWIA can better facilitate that work. I also want to do what I can to raise awareness of the work conducted by MWIA and its National Associations and members worldwide and to promote partnerships with other organizations. My final goal is more personal. My daughter attended the Commission on the Status of Women this year as the Delegate of the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and I wanted to better understand the work that she is doing on behalf of women and girls.

MWIA has two permanent representatives to the United Nations. The longest serving is Dr. Satty Keswani, an Obstetrician Gynecologist. Dr. Keswani has been a representative of MWIA at the United Nations for many years and she has faithfully represented the needs of women around the world as our members have determined, based on their clinical experience. The newest permanent representative is Dr. Padmini Murthy and I will speak more about the role she has developed later. The work of these two women, however, has been so inspiring that MWIA has begun to fill its delegation to the meeting and this has also been important in raising the profile of the organization.

My days at CSW all began the same way, with worship at the Church Centre for the United Nations. I found that these services, organized by a different denomination each day, helped me to focus on my goals for the day and my goals for girls and women in general. Two parts of these services stay with me. One was a responsory in which each prayer of a part of the service called “The Prayers of the People” was delivered by a different girl or woman. At the end of her intercession, she would knock on a door set up near the altar. To this action, the congregation prays, “Open the door!” Still, despite all our work, many doors are still closed to girls and women and this responsory illustrated this powerfully.

The second worship event that affected me was the instruction that, in our work, we must be like a river. Great rivers, for the most part, run their course gently flowing over and through the land where they exist. When barriers arise, the rivers flow over them or around them when they can. When a river cannot flow over or around barriers, a river becomes fierce and dangerous, with eddies and undertows and rapids. The river moves forward, eventually wearing down every obstacle. It may take many years but the river wears down every barrier in its path. This metaphor is another powerful image of how women will eventually progress, despite the odds.

Of the many side and parallel events I attended, I was most moved by the frustration expressed by the members of Medical Women’s Association of Nigeria (MWAN). These are the women doctors of Nigeria and they presented data on infant and maternal mortality that clearly was worrying them. They want better results and were clearly seeking advice and support in their considerable efforts. To me, they were overlooking the progress they have already made. I was happy to be able to remind them of their progress because I admire so much their persistence in the face of formidable odds. The river of Nigerian women doctors is wearing down the barriers against maternal/child health in their country.

I also want to speak about Dr. Padmini Murthy and her work at the United Nations CSW – NonGovernmental Organization Committee. Through her work, Dr. Murthy also raises the profile of MWIA in her role as one of our two permanent representatives.I could not get to all of Dr. Murthy’s presentations during the week. That there were so many is an indicator of the breadth of her expertise. Dr. Murthy also serves as the Communications Secretary for the UNCSW NGO Committee, a role requiring considerable diplomacy and insight. All of her accomplishments demonstrate that it is possible through persistent efforts to develop influence among decision makers. For those days when we wonder if our efforts are having an impact, Dr. Murthy’s example serves as a reminder that we can.

The Commission on the Status of Women is populated by many dedicated women who have worked for years in the cause of equality. For those of us who are older, it is heartening to see so many young women and girls devoting to continuing this work. For me personally, I am inspired by my daughter’s courage and devotion to the cause of women’s and girl’s equality. Caitlin Reilley Beck’s commitment comes from a deep well within her heart and I am relieved to know that I did not dampen this enthusiasm. Supporting her work is one of the best ways for me to secure a better future for all women and girls.

“…no solutions to our world’s most pressing challenges can be achieved without the equal and full participation of women…”  Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, at the opening of CSW58