Activists Boost Female Health Empowerment

Activists Boost Female Health Empowerment

by Eleanor J. Bader

Our Bodies, Ourselves started with a small group of strangers talking to one another at a women’s liberation conference. Now, nearly 40 years later — that milestone will be reached in December 2010 – Our Bodies, Ourselves, located in Boston, has become a world-renowned resource on every aspect of women’s health, from AIDS to reproduction and sexuality.

Its history includes some startling accomplishments. For example, since 1970 more than four million copies of eight editions have reached approximately 20 million readers and the book has been translated into 23 language including Albanian, Braille, Creole, Kiswahili, Japanese, Russian and Spanish. What’s more, Our Bodies, Ourselves’ staff — it started as a collective but has since morphed into a structured non-profit organization — have produced texts dealing with love and relationships; pregnancy and childbirth, and menopause and aging. They’ve also testified at countless public hearings and have written thousands of letters and op-ed pieces on such public health concerns as the direct-to-consumer advertising of pharmaceuticals, breast implants and violations of informed consent.

Four million copies have
reached 20 million readers
in 23 languages.

Judy Norsigian, Executive Director of Our Bodies, Ourselves, has been involved with the project since the beginning and notes that the book’s first edition was called “Women and Their Bodies.” The title changed in 1971, she says, because “the original title sounded distant and we wanted something that reclaimed our bodies for ourselves. Our Bodies, Ourselves sounded like a good name.”

And it is. Indeed, Our Bodies, Ourselves’ insider perspective gives the book both its edge and its appeal. The notion that women can be their own experts, particularly when discussing health and sexuality, continues to attract readers who relish the personal insights –women speaking from the heart about themselves and their bodies–that fill the pages.

Other guiding principles are evident. First, Our Bodies, Ourselves promotes the idea that people should know about controversies surrounding medical practices and procedures. Should young women sell their eggs to assist infertile couples? Should Tamoxifen be taken by women with breast cancer? Would the legalization of prostitution benefit sex workers?

Secondly, they are against a disease approach to such normal life events as pregnancy, childbearing, menopause and growing older as ineffective and often harmful.

Lastly, Our Bodies, Ourselves promotes activism, proving that when we become informed health care consumers, we take a small step toward social change.

Taking Feminism Seriously on A Global Scale

Of course, feminism has always been implicit in the work of Our Bodies, Ourselves, demonstrating the link between health and political and social status. This link is particularly evident in Our Bodies Ourselves’ Global Translation/Adaption Program, its international extension.

Program Associate Ayesha Chatterjee says that while Our Bodies, Ourselves initially provided word-for-word translations of its texts, it no longer does this. Instead, when international women’s groups come to Our Bodies Ourselves, the policy is to work with them to determine what types of information will be most useful to the population they wish to reach. “The driving factor is to make sure that women have editorial control and that the material is culturally appropriate and translated accurately,” Chatterjee says. “In Nigeria, for example, the group is deleting sections on growing older and on medical procedures because these issues are less important to them. Their focus is on HIV, adolescent reproductive and sexual health, and breast self-exams.”

People should know about
controversies surrounding
medical practices.

In Israel, Chatterjee continues, where Assisted Reproductive Technologies are available free of charge and are used by roughly 20 percent of women, Our Bodies, Ourselves includes a great deal of information on the pluses and minuses of fertility treatments.

Similarly, in Turkey, where iron deficiency anemia, diabetes and hypoglycemia are widespread, the book, due out in late 2009, will include data on treatment options and diet. The Turkish edition will also include information on “honor killings” since this topic is of growing interest to women there. Chatterjee describes a 2006 study conducted by the Turkish Society for Sexual Education, Treatment and Research which found that 40 percent of the population sanctions such killings. “In Turkish law there’s a distinction between murder and ‘honor killing,'” she says. “Regular murders have much higher penalties since the concept of honor is valued a lot more than the life of a woman. The book will bring this to the fore, highlighting this reality from multiple standpoints, including religious, and will include information about shelters that provide refuge for women who have escaped or been rescued.”

Likewise, a Senagalese adaptation published in 2004 includes facts about female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, which is commonly practiced in that country. “The Senegalese talk about FGM as a violation of a woman’s right to bodily integrity and focus on the negative medical impact of the practice,” Chatterjee says. “They stress that there is no religious requirement to do this, that it is a social requirement. The underlying desire to provide fact-based information is guided by the women’s feminist understanding and vision, but they make their point by providing social, cultural, political and religious analyses alongside concrete medical information.”

“The bottom line is that we give the women’s groups we work with the space to identify needs so that the content makes sense for their communities and is meaningful to their people,” Chatterjee says. “As long as the women’s groups determine the content, structure and format of the materials, there is no example of us saying, ‘We cannot work with you.’ Basically our focus changes depending on the social and political needs of a particular community.”

Motorcyclists Deliver Health Tips

This flexibility has allowed Our Bodies, Ourselves to help groups create a panoply of materials and develop a wide range of approaches to women’s health education. In countries where illiteracy is common, or where rampant poverty makes book buying impossible, poster campaigns have provided quick, easy-to-access information. In other places short pamphlets on a single topic have proven effective. In still others, training modules have been crafted to enable local women to share information with their neighbors.

Hairdressers have been
turned into peer educators.

Nigeria, says Chatterjee, leads in this approach. Although Nigerian activists associated with Women for Empowerment, Development and Gender Reform have experienced some backlash, their work in promoting women’s health has incorporated numerous bold initiatives. For one, 420 hairdressers have been trained as peer educators, dispensing information gleaned from Our Bodies, Ourselves to the clients they see each week with an additional 2,400 haridressers to be trained by the end of 2009. In addition, a motorcycle campaign sends activists from village to village where they spread the word through a megaphone. In some areas, they’ve also gone door-to-door to explain what they are doing, why they are doing it and why it is important for people to have this information. “This is grassroots to the core,” Chatterjee says. “It’s amazing how much these women have done on a shoestring budget.”

The same is true in Nepal. “The Women’s Rehabilitation Center has been around for 14 years and has earned huge good will in the community,” she says. “When the new constitution was written in 2007, it said that all citizens were equal before the law and outlawed sex discrimination. Reproductive rights were added and the group was invited by the Health Ministry to develop strategies for dealing with a pervasive uterine problem. In essence, the women used the health project and their networking experience to influence many different spheres of women’s lives.” Amazing, this, since just a decade ago, women suspected of inducing abortions — legal since 2002 — were jailed for upwards of 20 years.

Our Bodies, Ourselves’ goal is precisely this: as in Nepal, improving women’s health and social standing so that they can be forceful advocates for themselves and their communities. Toward that end, Our Bodies, Ourselves-inspired materials are currently being developed or updated in eight countries: China, India, Israel, Nepal, Nigeria, Russia, Tanzania and Turkey. Despite the worldwide recession, the first months of 2009 brought additional requests for translations into Farsi, Finnish and Tamil.

Our Bodies Require Eternal Vigilance

While Our Bodies, Ourselves’ staff are delighted by these developments, they understand that bettering female health and boosting consumer empowerment requires endless vigilance. So the work continues. An updated Our Bodies, Ourselves — the most recent, 850-page edition came out in 2005 — is scheduled for 2011, shortly after the group celebrates its 40th birthday.

Fact-based information guided by
feminist understanding and vision.

Till then, the group will not only work on the update, but will continue its dogged organizing and monitoring of health care policy. On the domestic front, executive director Norsigian, pledges to “keep a diligent eye on every corner of the medical industry and watch the drug industry to look out for malfeasance.” Debate, she adds, is also still needed on such contentious subjects as sex work, censorship, and the best ways to combat the media’s continual reinforcement of sexist stereotypes and misogyny. Furthermore, Our Bodies, Ourselves will keep doing what it has done for decades: publicizing the dangers of silicone breast implants; opposing the cloning of human embryos; fighting the medicalization of aging, and working to promote midwifery, among them.

This intrepid work has garnered praise from every corner of the globe and inspired new strategies for community empowerment. From a simple conversation among a handful of women, Our Bodies, Ourselves has grown into a worldwide movement that empowers thousands of passive medical consumers and helps them become their own agents of change.

Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, freelance writer and activist from Brooklyn, NY.

Also see Clare Coss’ THE POET’S EYE in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See The Reproductive Rights Reader BOOK REVIEW in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.