Albion Monitor /News

Patriarchy is Threat to Women's Health, Conference Decides

by Mario Osava

Violence against women must be treated as a public health priority
(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO -- A woman's right to health care has advanced in recent years, but is still up against the "systemic obstacles" of economic and religious fundamentalism, according to an international meeting here.

The International Women and Health Meeting in Rio from March 16 to 20, was attended by more than 700 delegates from 72 countries.

The meeting concluded that violence against women must be treated as a public health priority, because of its negative effects on the mental and physical health of the population as a whole, meeting co-ordinator Eleonora Menicucci de Oliveira told IPS.

The Vatican still holds sway over the policies of many nations
This was the first international meeting since the Womens Conference in Beijing in 1995, which strengthened the "independent feminist movement" in favor of greater access to health services for women, said sociologist and health expert from the Paulist School of Medicine in Sao Paulo.

The big conferences promoted by the United Nations this decade, especially those in Beijing and Cairo on Population and Development, legitimated rights and complaints whose fulfillment women can now demand with greater strength, she explained.

The main advances made in the Rio meeting were reflected in the recognition of the differences which demand specific approaches to the problems of female health in different countries, regions or continents.

Also they incorporate new issues, like gender violence, workplace and mental health, added Menicucci.

But practical declines as a result of the world-wide "state crisis," which even caused the loss of benefits in rich countries, were also reported, said Maria Aparecida Schumaker, leader of a Brazilian non governmental organization.

"The globalization of the productive, financial and market systems, the structural adjustment policies and the increasing economic crisis in many countries have caused severe cutbacks in public and health services," said the final declaration of the meeting.

The "fundamentalization of the market," which implies the privatization of services and the resurgence of "neo-malthusian arguments," especially in the United States, threaten the advances made in the debate on the reproductive and sexual rights of women, she added.

"Religious fundamentalism which aims to reinforce gender hierarchies" constitutes another great barrier to the movement giving women greater access to health, said the declaration, mentioning the violent process of genital mutilation practiced as a result of "patriarchal domination" in many countries.

The Vatican was strongly opposed in the world conferences, but it still holds sway over the policies of many nations.

In Muslim countries, even United Nations agencies are associated with conservative schools which discriminate against girls.

The lack of gender perspective in the design of public policies is a wide-spread phenomenon, especially in health matters, said the women, meeting in Rio de Janiero.

One drastic example of this situation are the African women suffering from AIDS. There are six women sufferers for every male carrier, nearly all of whom are infected in sexual relations with stable partners, said Beatrice Were, a Ugandan social worker.

AIDS carrying women are seen as "murderers" if they get married again, whereas men are not, she said.

In Uganda, 1.5 million people out of a total of 18 million are infected, including Were herself, whose husband died from AIDS six years ago and whose two children may be carriers.

The Women and Health meeting also denounced the fact that men are still "owners of the female body," as gynecology and obstetrics remain male-dominated medical fields. "Women are pushed into specializations which are "extensions of their tasks at home," like pediatrics and speech therapy, due to the discrimination exercised by male power in the universities, said Eleonora de Oliveira.

Transforming the state and monitoring the private sector for better, more integral health attention for women, the legalization of abortion, and the application of the international agreements were some of the recommendations approved in the meeting, which will be repeated in Canada in three years' time.

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Albion Monitor April 10, 1997 (

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