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Stanford Report, February 6, 2002

Conference casts global gaze on women's health issues


When a woman in a developing country faces a health problem, it often has a ripple effect on her whole family. This was one of the topics that took center stage during a daylong conference at Stanford's Kresge Auditorium Jan. 29.

The event, "Preventive Health Care for Women: Global Attitudes & Access," was presented by Women's Health @ Stanford, a multidisciplinary initiative that facilitates women's health research, education and health care at Stanford.

"This conference is an excellent way to spark discussion and foster communica-tion when it comes to women's health issues," said Linda C. Giudice, MD, PhD, president of Women's Health @ Stanford.

The question, "Why focus on women's health as opposed to health in general" arose throughout the day. Answers ranged from the unique economic and social contributions of women in developing countries to problems of inequality and a relative absence of female voices in social and political power structures.

The first panel, "Global Implications of Women's Health," moderated by Philip Pizzo, dean of the School of Medicine, featured Victor R. Fuchs, PhD, the Henry J. Kaiser Jr. Professor Emeritus in the Department of Economics and the Department of Health Research and Policy, and Mary Ellen Stanton, senior reproductive health adviser, Bureau for Global Health for the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Panelists discussed how women's lack of access to quality health care disproportionately affects a developing society.

Women, Stanton said, "tend to be the primary food gatherers in many developing countries, yet health problems relating to pregnancy and fertility can significantly limit their productivity." In addition, mortality rates for children whose mothers die far outweigh those of children who lose their fathers, she said.

The high female-to-male ratio of the audience didn't escape Stanton who, while applauding male contributions in advancing awareness of women's health issues, called for greater involvement of men in advocacy and policy implementation.

Both panelists and Pizzo stressed the value of education in addressing women's health. "We're here to heighten awareness of women's health issues while focusing on the interface between research and education," Pizzo said.

Gaps between academic research and education, policymaking and effective implementation were also addressed.

"What can we do, researching issues in an academic setting, to effect real change for women in need of health care access worldwide?" asked Anne Firth Murray, founder of Global Fund for Women, during a panel she moderated titled "The Importance of Prevention for Women."

The answer? "Not much," she said. Real solutions, Murray added, cannot be achieved without real changes in attitude from international policymakers to make room for the unique perspectives of women at the grass-roots level.

Panelist Joel Lamstein, president of World Education, a private organization focused on literacy programs, echoed Murray's sentiment. He noted that an increase in literacy rates for rural communities often results in improved leadership skills and better self-representation for women in those communities.

The final panel presentation explored improving women's access to preventive care. Phyllis Greenberger, president and CEO of the Society for Women's Health Research, discussed new preventive health legislation that has been introduced before the U.S. Congress.

Discussion topics included health care in Afghanistan, female genital mutilation (or "cutting") and the health care implications of hereditary factors in breast cancer.

An audience member raised the issue of the long-term effects of China's one-child policy. Fuchs maintained that fewer females in the society increased the social and economic value of each Chinese woman, while Murray pointed out that the gender imbalance has led to increased trafficking of women from India and rural southern China.

Susan J. Blumenthal, MD, assistant surgeon general and science adviser for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, delivered closing remarks, on future health issues facing American women in the 21st century.

Mary Ellen Stanton explains that the death of a mother disproportionately affects child mortality.

Women's Health @ Stanford