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National NOW Times >> Winter, 2001 >> Article

Women's Health Symposium Draws Visitors from Around the Globe

by Deb Benko

Co-sponsored by the NOW Foundation, Women's Institute on Sport and Education (WISE), and the White House Millennium Council, the Women's International Symposium on Health (WISH) was held Oct. 14-16, 2000, in conjunction with the World March of Women in Washington, D.C.

Women and men from 35 countries, including Bangladesh, Sweden, India, Tunisia, Cameroon, Bolivia, Senegal, the Russian Federation, Chad, South Africa and the United States, joined together to discuss improving women's health care from an activist and policy perspective.

NOW Foundation Secretary/Treasurer Karen Johnson believes, "WISH underscored the need for us to share health advocacy information and perspectives."

Topics discussed included reproductive health, tobacco, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and medical research. U.S. Assistant Surgeon General and keynote speaker Susan Blumenthal, MD, presented "Critical Women's Health Issues for the 21st Century."

NOW Foundation award recipient Vivian Pinn, MD, director of the National Institutes of Health Office of Research on Women's Health, emphasized that research into prevention—not just treatment—of illnesses such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, breast cancer and cervical cancer should be a growing priority.

In addition, Pinn stressed the importance of encouraging more girls to pursue science careers. As an example of barriers women have faced, Pinn described how a male medical student declared she was taking up space a man could have filled — and how feminist poetic justice was served when that student dropped out due to academic failure and Pinn graduated.

Expressing another theme of WISH, Marya Grambs, an activist in the fight against domestic violence since 1975, summarized strategies around the globe employed to confront it, including all-women police stations in Brazil, a women's trade union in Zambia that assists survivors, and a men's organization in South Africa which recognizes men who make strides toward eliminating violence against women at the grassroots level. Grambs affirmed, "A country is not free until its women are free."

Internationally known expert Nancy Klimas, MD, presented data on the prevalence of HIV/AIDS worldwide and discussion of strategies for prevention and treatment. Dr. Klimas noted the steps taken in model programs to reduce HIV/AIDS.

Fatoumata Sire Diakite, leader of an organization working to end the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Mali, reviewed its variations and impacts in different countries.

Linda Malone, JD, a professor of law at The College of William and Mary, discussed international law and protecting women from sexual violence, noting that often the only resource women have for fighting rape and harassment is the power of class action lawsuits and activism. When outside media cannot reach a village with educational programs, women talking to other women one-on-one about subjects like FGM can foster change.

Johnson states, "I was inspired by our sisters often working under adverse situations yet demonstrating a unified commitment to improving women's health and equality."

Discussions allowed WISH participants not only to share experiences, but also to make plans for renewed activism regarding health care issues in their own communities. Attendees took Sunday off to take part in the World March of Women, which also offered the inspiration of a global movement dedicated to women's rights.

At the conclusion of the long weekend, participants like Lizza Gonzales, a web site designer, had new-found enthusiasm: "Thumbs up on a great conference! I've learned quite a bit and am excited to share all this knowledge with my colleagues and friends....I look forward to attending more NOW [Foundation] events."

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