Hesperian Health Guides
Working for Change
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It does not have to be this way
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The way societies are organized forces most women into lives of poverty and poor health. But societies could be organized in a way that favors health instead of disease.
Since the causes of poor health exist at the family, community, and national levels, changes to improve women’s health must happen at each of these different levels.
Working for change in your family
You can improve your health by learning about women’s health problems and by making changes in your own life and in your family. Talk with your partner about what you each need to have better health, including practicing safer sex and sharing the workload fairly. You can also work to improve the health and future of your children. Here are some ideas:
Working for change in your community
You can improve your health and the health of other women in your community by sharing this book and by talking with them about women’s health problems.
Because social conditions affect them differently, women and men may need to find different solutions for the same health problems.
Talking with others can be hard. Women often feel shame (for example, when talking about parts of the body) or fear about what others will think. Yet talking with others is the only way to learn more about health problems and to discover their causes. Often you will find that other women are worried about the same things, and want to discuss them.
Get a small group of women together to talk about health problems in your community. Try inviting women who are friends of your friends, neighbors, or women you work with. Once you have identified a health problem that many women share, it is often helpful to meet again and invite others to discuss it and learn more. When you meet, think about the root causes of the health problem, and plan the changes you can make in your families and community.
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Think about involving men as well as women in discussions about women’s health. It may seem difficult to talk about women’s health problems with men, because this kind of talk is considered taboo, or ‘women’s secrets’. But since men are often in positions of power, their help can be very important. Look for men who are supportive of women, are good role models for boys, or who treat women as their equals.
Here are some other activities that can help improve health in a community:
- Share information. Find ways to spread information about the common health problems in your community, so that everyone will know about them.
- Form support groups. Women who share common problems—such as women who have survived rape or abuse, breastfeeding mothers, women with disabilities, or sex workers—can form groups to support each other and work together to overcome their problems.
In Zimbabwe, the Musasa Project was created to help women who suffered from violence, particularly violence in the home and sexual assault. Musasa found that women who were beaten by their partners were not protected by the law. Many people said that men should have power over women because that was the way it had always been, or because it was part of their community’s beliefs. These people also said that regular beatings reminded women of their place.
Musasa’s goal is to change this attitude through public education and by counseling those who have survived violence. In this way, women, men, teachers, students, police, and health workers are learning that violence is an abuse of power. Musasa plans to set up a house where women and children can stay when they are in danger.
- Work toward more independence. Projects that help women earn money and improve their working conditions also help women start to make their own decisions and gain self-esteem.
In a tiny Mayan village in Guatemala, a group of women formed a weaving group. They sold their weavings through a cooperative store for women’s crafts in the capital city. The women now earn more income than most of the men in their area. As a result, women have gained new status in their families and communities and have more opportunities in their lives.
- Develop community projects. For example, try to find ways for every family in the community to get enough to eat, or to improve community sanitation and access to clean water.
The Green Belt movement in Kenya has involved many women in planting and protecting trees, which prevent soil erosion and provide fuel. The women’s success at protecting the environment and providing fuel for their families has built their confidence and helped them earn a living. As one Green Belt member said, “Our forests were running out because of our constant need for firewood. We meet weekly to collect seeds, to do potting and fencing, and tend the trees in our nursery. We also talk to groups and schools about the environment. In this way, we are both helping ourselves and bettering the environment.”
Simple and low-cost community efforts can make a difference
When you first look at a problem, it often seems very hard to make changes. But, in fact, communities can make many improvements that do not cost too much. For example, here are some of the suggestions this book contains for preventing or helping solve women’s health problems:
- Start a community stove project. Women often suffer from lung infections, burns, and back problems. Low-cost cook stoves that are safer, use less fuel, and produce less smoke can prevent many of these problems.
- Establish an emergency transportation system. Many women die from complications of pregnancy, childbirth, and unsafe abortion. These deaths could often be prevented by reaching medical care quickly.
- Low-cost cancer screening can prevent many women from dying from cervical and breast cancer. Cancers are much easier to treat if they are found early.
- Make family planning services and good prenatal care accessible to all women. Doing so can prevent many deaths due to complications of pregnancy, childbirth and unsafe abortion.
- Train health workers to care for women’s health. They should be trained in pelvic exams, Pap tests and visual inspection, manual vacuum aspiration (MVA), breast exams, and counseling. They should also learn how to use medicines for women’s health.
Working for change in your country
You can improve your health, and the health of many other women in your country, by working together with other groups in different parts of the country. By working together, you can make important changes in the way your government treats women and women’s health. For example, community groups can pressure the government to punish men who rape or abuse women, or to make safe abortion available. Or you can get laws passed to allow women to own or inherit property— so that women are not forced to depend on men.
Gaining power over our own health
Just as ‘women’s health’ means more than maternal health, it also means more than access to health care. To be truly healthy, women need the chance to make the decisions necessary for good health. And they need access to a fair share of the resources in their communities and in the world.
By joining other women and men in the struggle for health, we can demand the chance to live healthy, full, and joyful lives — free of disease, pain, and fear.