At the LSA International Institute’s Conference On Gender and Health in Global, Transnational and Historical Perspectives, which took place virtually Thursday, panelists discussed the intersections of gender inequities and women’s health decisions
Panelist Elizabeth J. King, professor of public health, discussed her research on societal stigmas in Russia that prevent women from seeking health care, specifically those surrounding injective drug use and HIV. King said these stigmas have resulted in women, particularly mothers, mistrusting the country’s healthcare system.
“Automatically what’s associated with women and drug use, is their role as mothers or as future mothers,” King said. “Part of this fear of being exposed or registering as a person who injects drugs, is that one of the threats is the issue of child custody,” King said.
Victoria Langland, another panelist and director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies, then spoke about her research on breastfeeding in Brazil in the mid 20th century. She said the American-run studies found that infant weaning ages in Brazil were significantly younger than Brazilian-run studies found them to be. These results led the United States government to launch programs such as Food for Peace that provide foreign countries with agricultural surpluses to fight world hunger.
Langland said these programs, instead of delivering the help mothers needed, tend to promote the general view that impoverished women are responsible for the circumstances in which they live, and the least able to make sound decisions.
“These interventions at best shaped how Brazilian pediatricians and policymakers saw poor women, especially those of the northeastern region of Brazil, authenticating long-existing views that women are both personally and uniquely responsible for the health of their infant children,” Langland said.
Langland and King’s remarks led to a discussion about different moral interpretations of women’s choices. YunZhou, professor of sociology, said doctors in China often do not have the time to create an emotional connection with a patient due to the increased numbers of patients they have to see.
“I think that (is a)piece (of) women’s experience with doctors, so the assumption going in is a very adversarial one rather than a more amicable one,” Zhou said. “And I think that also shapes these women’s own expectations.”
King continued to relate the moralization of women’s medical choices to motherhood, emphasizing the moral pressures that mothers with HIV face.
“In the medical healthcare system, if women were diagnosed with HIV during pregnancy, there was pressure to have an abortion, because there were expectations around who would be able to be a good mother to be able to have a ‘healthy child,’” King said.
In the second session, panelists discussed cultural and gendered differences in maternal, infant and child health care around the world.
Monica Das Gupta, sociology professor at the University of Maryland, discussed her research on parents’ child gender preference in South Korea. She said that in South Korea, parents’ preference of having sons started to rapidly decline in the late 20th century, and in 2012, a poll showed that more preferred to have a daughter.
“Sex selection is driven by cultures that foster parents to depend on sons,” Gupta said. “In these settings, sex selection rises with risk levels, and with technological ease of sex selection. So what changes such cultures? Possibly broad social changes, such as urbanization and industrialization, that reduce the power of lineages and exposure to new norms through education mass media.”
Rackham student Daniel Iddrisu then discussed his research on the impact of malaria in female-headed vs. male-headed households in Ghana.
Iddrisu said male-headed houses are more likely to have access to bed nets and other preventative measures to combat malaria.
“Female-headed households don’t have access to other resources compared to male-headed houses, but they are able to ensure that the prevalence of malaria within their households is at a minimum level,” Iddrisu.
Iddrisu also highlighted how gender-based hierarchies can prevent access to healthcare, because the male authority figure in the household sometimes cannot be reached.
“A lot of children actually die as a result of that, you are trying to get to their father or their grandmother to ask for permission before you go to the hospital,” Iddrisu said.
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