Women's Health and the City: Toronto

Article excerpt

Women's daily lives in cities expose them to a wide variety of environments. The impact of these environments on their health and well-being varies by age, class, race or ethnicity, as well as a host of other individual and cultural factors. How do we make sense of this complexity and diversity?

To begin answering this question, we held discussions with seven groups of women whose voices and perspectives are not often found in the literature. These included older women, teenage girls, Native women, immigrant women, single mothers, women with disabilities, and women working in academia - 50 women in total. We organized the groups by networking with agencies and organizations in the Toronto area such as the Older Women's Network, Oakwood Collegiate Institute, Anishnawbe Health, the Davenport-Perth Community Centre, Able York, and the York University Faculty Association.

Voices of Diversity

Our discussions produced a wealth of information about the ways in which different women perceive their environments. Environments that are important sources of support and connection for some may be settings of fear and vulnerability for others. While our findings are limited by the small number involved, and by the emphasis on women in Toronto, the diversity of responses among groups and within groups suggests that the environmental influences on women's health are far more complex than is generally recognized.

Women's Environments

When examining the relationship between women's health and environments, researchers have looked almost exclusively at health systems and at gendered risks in the home and workplace. In contrast, this project provided women with an opportunity to name the environments they see as influencing their own health and well-being, and thereby expand our understanding of the environments relevant to women's health. Immigrant women's discussion of the "chilly climate" in Canadian neighbourhoods highlighted the importance of the environment surrounding the home.

Teenage girls emphasized ways in which the school environment, including their peers, can have both positive and negative impacts on health. For example, teenage girls talked about the ways in which teachers can create a positive or negative environment by being either supportive and encouraging or hypercritical in the classroom. Girls also talked about feeling harassed and judged by both adults and other teenagers. Many said they wished there was less emphasis on clothes and boys and more efforts at building supportive relationships and selfesteem among girls.

Native women's discussion of feeling "lost in the world" described the horrific consequences of being immersed in a cultural environment that is hostile and oppressive to Native people. Native women's sense of being "lost in the world" included histories of trauma, abuse, foster care, dysfunctional men, poverty, marital breakdown, single-parenting, and racism. Lack of education, services, and knowledge of traditional spirituality makes it particularly difficult for native women to feel strong and connected. For every group, public spaces, such as streets, parks, shops and services, were seen as impacting on their sense of health and well-being.

Risk and ResiLience

Gendered health risks are one of the primary themes in women's health and environment research, though concepts of resilience and thriving are equally important. This project focused on both the positive (resilience) and negative (risk) aspects of the various environments. While it would be inappropriate to generalize.from our discussions to all women, some common themes are worth noting. Almost all of the groups talked about the positive aspects of connection or community in one form or another. A prevalent theme in the older women's discussion, for example, was about the tension between autonomy and isolation. …