Gender and Health: A Social Movement's Agenda for Big Pharma

Article excerpt

Abstract:

Social movements have an important new campaigning and organizing competence in new information communication technologies. These technologies also enable the members of social movements to readily research the accuracy of information: knowledge becomes globalized and readily accessible. In relation to Big Pharma, women's social movements and social movements of the medicated intersect, and there is now a substantial challenge to Big Pharma both within developed and developing countries from the terrain of gender and health. This paper documents those challenges and looks towards their consequences in the future both in respect of Big Pharma but also in terms of 'academic' research.

1. Introduction: Health, gender and the globalizing of knowledge

Not one of the chief scientists or heads of research at any of the major pharmaceutical companies is a woman. Why that's the case is much less clear. (http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/summary/309/5735/724)

Let's start by visiting the International People's Health University, an on-line facility operated from Nicaragua (http://www.phmovement.org/iphu/) and one of its courses (http://www.phmovement.org/iphu/en/short). We can see that not only is health knowledge being globalised but there are social movements which are strategizing the globalization of health knowledge. The International People's Health University provides resources and training for health activists on a global platform and within its concerns are issues of gender and health. It provides courses and knowledge on the range of global health action and in doing so counteracts and compensates for inequitable health practices by other organizations, institutions and agencies.

The new information communication technologies provide a new space for discourse and organization by activists and new parameters for action and challenge. On-line activist health personnel linked to universities provide one form of new social action in health, global social movements and meeting the challenge of AIDS/HIV provides another (http://www.globalaidsalliance.org/). Health organizing through and around web sites generates open and searchable knowledge: it creates paths to knowledge for those affected by health conditions and prevents such knowledge from being confined to the professional portfolios of experts.

In this context, Big Pharma has come under challenge and within this challenge it is recognized that there has been a persisting gender bias of drug development consistent with the decade-old medicalizing of women's bodies (http://www.thenhf.com/articles_169.htm ; http://orlando.women.it/quarta/workshops/epistemological4/pizzini.htm). But even as Big Pharma comes under challenge, and there are indeed signs of the success of activist challenge to the industry1, Big Pharma pushes into new domains and engulfs traditional areas of women's power and health knowledge. The regulation of food supplements, and its removal of many traditional food supplements from the marketplace altogether, can be viewed as an undermining of the last bastion of the alternative modality of the health knowledge of women - the unregulated traditional health space of 'wise women'2 has finally disappeared (http://www.naturalnews.com/027297_corn_food_the_FDA.html ; http://www.newswithviews.com/Howenstine/james24.htm ; http://www.newmediaexplorer.org/sepp/2005/07/12/european_court_decides_foo d_supplements_directive_may_go_ahead.htm).

The loss of women's power over health practice through the masculinization, medicalization and regulation of health over centuries is now, however, under challenge by women's increasing power as consumers and by their knowledge of health matters as trained professional practitioners and through new information communication technologies. Social movements around gender and health are now a feature of the modern political scene (http://www.womens.studies.uconn.edu/ManishaDesai1100028a. …