Confronting medical issues for women

March 3, 2009


- Shelley Ross is secretary general of the Medical Women’s International Association, a non-governmental organisation representing women doctors from all continents. The opinions expressed are her own. -

The Medical Women’s International Association was created in 1919, not long after the first International Women’s Day in 1911. MWIA’s founder was an American by the name of Dr. Esther Pohl Lovejoy, who served as its first president. She was an obstetrician by training but an activist and humanitarian by action. Not only did she establish MWIA but she also founded the American Women’s Hospital Service during the First World War.

The motto of the Medical Women’s International Association, Matris Animo Curant, comes from Latin and translates to read, “She Heals with the Spirit of a Mother.”

From the time of Hygeia in ancient Greece to present day, women have had a significance influence on the practice of medicine.

To name three of its objectives, MWIA (1) works to overcome gender-related differences in health and healthcare between women and men throughout the world, (2) works to overcome gender related inequalities in the medical profession and (3) works to promote health for all through the world with particular interest in women, health and development.

International Women’s Day on March 8, gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we are doing with accomplishing these objectives.

Regarding gender-related differences in health and healthcare, a past Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, once said that no country treats their women the same as they treat their men. This is often more readily apparent in the developing countries, where family resources dictate that boys will receive medical care and girls will not. Reproductive health is another example of gender related differences in health care.

In 2009, women are still being denied skilled care during pregnancy, labour and delivery because they cannot access appropriate medical care. In sub-Saharan Africa, the cause is often lack of transportation to the medical facility whereas in the U.S., it is the lack of medical insurance.

Regarding gender-related inequalities in the medical profession, the biggest change has been in the number of women in medical school. In the developed world, female medical students equal if not surpass the number of male medical students. This has already changed the way medicine is practiced, as women have demanded a better work-life balance.

With this improvement in working conditions comes the danger of the profession becoming a Pink Collar profession, where the female predominance equates to lack of influence. One of MWIA’s jobs is to ensure that there are enough women in leadership roles to ensure that medicine continues to have the ability to influence policy makers and advocate for those in need of health care.

The number of women in medical school does not equate with the number of women in higher academic positions, such as deans of medical schools or heads of departments. For those women who wish to climb the academic ladder, there are many obstacles along the way, including the lack of female mentors. On the other hand, many women doctors feel that there is no discrimination, as they are busy balancing home and work and are quite happy to keep their head above water with their required day to day activities.

MWIA has had some successes when it comes to promoting health for all. MWIA has written a manual on how to make sure health care has a gender perspective and a manual on adolescent sexuality. MWIA was very involved in promoting immunization against Human Papillomavirus (HPV), which is the leading cause of cancer of the cervix. Thanks to MWIA’s work, there are many programs in schools that are immunizing girls and in some countries, boys, against this infection.

MWIA has spoken out for years against female genital mutilation (FGM). Dr. Koso Thomas of Sierra Leone wrote a book thirty years ago to help eradicate FGM, and recently starred in a Danish film, called “The Secret Pain,” that looks at FGM in her home country. MWIA has recently spoken out about osteoporosis, to help improve women’s awareness of the condition that predisposes them to major life changes. It is well known that once you have a hip fracture, your chance of leading an independent life ever again is less than 50 percent. MWIA holds international conferences that allow discussion on topics of timely interest. The next congress will be in Munster, Germany, in 2010. Visit the MWIA website at for more information.

So, on International Women’s Day, the question is whether things are as good as they are going to get for women and the answer is no. MWIA will continue to work to improve the lot of both women in medicine and the health of all women.


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