Strategies for Action on Women's Health: A Look Back at the 9th IWHM

Article excerpt

A Labour of Love

Women & Environments International is pleased to have Nuzhath Leedham, Executive Director of the Riverdale Immigrant Women's Centre and Co-chair for the 9th International Women's Health Meeting Introduce the Women 's Health and Environments edition of the magazine, which is based on the Meeting.

Since 1975, the International Women's Health Meetings have provided a forum for activists to develop and advance the international women's health agenda from the ground up. Two principles have underpinned them: equality as a condition of health, and distributive justice for women of the North and the South. The Meetings have provided an international forum for women to act locally, nationally and globally to deliver and advocate for essential health resources and the rights of women and girls. Over the years, the Meetings have dealt with such critical issues as the decriminalization of abortion, maternal health and morbidity, HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive rights. Canada hosted the 9th IWHM in Toronto from August 12-16 2002.

The Meeting conducted in Spanish, French and English brought together over 450 women from seven continents and 62 countries to develop an international women's health agenda based on social justice and human rights. The three themes, sexual and reproductive rights, violence (both state and family), and environmental issues were developed at international planning meetings in Geneva and Toronto. A steering committee with key partners that included the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW), Riverdale Immigrant Women's Centre (RIWC), and Reseau Quebecois d'Action pour la Sante des Femmes(RQASF) took overall responsibility for coordinating the Meeting which I co-chaired with Lise Martin (CRlAW). The Meeting was the culmination of two years of very hard work, and this look back highlights the challenges, complexities and satisfactions of organising Canada's IWHM. Given the extreme shortage of funding and resources, and the additional difficulties created by a post 9/11 world, this Meeting can only be seen as a labour of love.

Integrating the Themes

The opening plenary, moderated by Anne Firth Murray set the tone and the framework for a participatory approach to the Meeting. Issues were addressed with a clear awareness of global North/South inequities in the context of globalization and from a strong rights based, distributive justice agenda. MarieJose Oliveira Arujo, organizer of the 8th IWHM in Brazil, provided a historical overview and located this Meeting within the international women's movement.

Elizabeth May, Executive Director of the Sierra Club of Canada, voiced her grave concerns about the destruction of the environment and the ways air pollution, contaminated water and environmental toxins threaten our lives on a daily basis. Madelaine Dion Stout, a Cree activist, traced the trajectory of domestic and state violence within First Nations communities from colonization to globalization. She spoke about her personal experience of violence in the residential school system. She emphasized the importance of personal storytelling for its own sake and for its role in creating community solutions. Farida Akhter, from Bangladesh, spoke about health as "not only of body and disease, but the entire environment and the happiness of the person." She also highlighted the corporate values that have left us with "health care where the care is gone, and agriculture where the culture is gone."

From the beginning, we wanted to broaden the scope and discussion of health and make our collective way to a more holistic understanding and analysis. In pre-meeting discussions, we worked to build connections between essential indicators of the state of women's health, going beyond sexual and reproductive rights to include environmental issues as well as state and domestic violence.

It made sense to us that any discussion of health must include every element of our lived environment - the air we breathe, the food we eat, control over our bodies, our ability to make choices about where we live, how we live and who we live with, as well as our right to live a life free from oppression and violence. …