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PAHO address the critical issue of how to support women in the health sciences in Latin America

Meeting of Women experts on HIV and Environmental Health Research
PAHO - NIH - FLACSO - strengthening of women’s researchers
September 3, 2008.
Director's talking points

Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very good morning to you all,

I wish to extend a warm welcome to each of you, as we gather here today in PAHO to address the critical issue of how to support women in the health sciences in Latin America. This issue has long been on my mind, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome you all here to think with us on how best to help the women whose scientific efforts provides an underpinning of all that we do.

Let me take a moment at the outset to recognize my partners in organizing this event. I am grateful to them for bringing to my attention the virtual training and mentoring program for Latin American women researchers that forms the basis of our discussions in the coming days. Both are well known colleagues to me, and their combined efforts on this particular program have elevated the issue of women's needs to new levels. They have been stalwart in their support of women in science from developing nations.

PAHO partners in women in the health science and research

Gloria Bonder is the Director of the UNESCO Regional Chair on Women, Science and Technology in Latin America. She is also the leader of the Center on Gender, Society and Policy at FLACSO in Argentine. She is a passionate and exceptional leader and teacher on gender issues, including for PAHO.

I was not surprised to learn that with her team she designed and implemented a very innovative and unique training and mentoring program aimed at empowering Latin American women researchers in health sciences. She will tell you about this program in just a few moments but I wanted to acknowledge her at the beginning.

Let me also recognize Sharon Hrynkow ("Rink-O"), another good friend of PAHO. During her many years at the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, Sharon has worked to build capacity of scientists in developing nations. She decided early on in her leadership role at Fogarty to focus on the needs of women specifically, and it was her vision that allowed the development of the pilot that we will discuss over the next days.

I am pleased also to recognize a new partner -- to thank her for her support of this meeting -- Dr. Hortencia Hornbeak from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Dr. Hornbeak has extensive experience in facilitating international collaborations in the areas of infectious diseases including AIDS and providing leadership training to women scientists. We welcome her as a partner!

I also commend my PAHO colleagues especially from the Gender, Ethnicity and Health Office, from Research, HIV/AIDS, Environmental Health and Human Resources Development for contributing their expertise to this important meeting, and for helping to make this meeting a reality.

The major challenges facing women in health research and practice in Latin America

What we need to do over the next days is to consider the major challenges facing women in health research and practice in Latin America and hear your recommendations on actions.

Let me say a few words from my own perspective about the challenges facing women and the cultural issues that prevent them from reaching full potential.

First, women in Latin America do not enjoy the same social status as men. Gender equality is a goal yet to be achieved.

While we are pleased to see women taking on leadership positions, as Ministers, even Presidents, in Latin America, we know that our social and cultural norms still keep women in subservient roles and from realizing their smart potential. This is relevant as we look at women in science and we can see that women are not achieving top positions at the same pace as male counterparts.

Second, the relatively poorer health status of women in Latin America remains a problem. Women suffer gender-based violence, high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, and the disproportionate burden of mental illness. The two specific health issues that we will focus on in this particular consultation provide specific examples.

AIDS: The current trend of the rates of HIV infections in women and girls across Latin America, particularly in Caribbean countries, is alarming. Too many women and girls are still unable to negotiate protected and consensual sex, because they may be in a violent relationship, may be an adolescent in a forced sexual relationship, may be in a stable relationship with an HIV infected partner (discordant couples), or may be trafficked or forced into commercial sex. There needs to be a stop to the feminization of the epidemic which requires the eradication of the social, cultural and economic constraints that affect women, teenagers and girls.

Consider the following statistics: Women aged between 15 and 24 account for 45 percent of all HIV infections among adults globally. In 2007, there were an estimated 20,000 new infections among adults in the Caribbean and 140,000 in Latin America. Currently 47,000 boys and girls are living with HIV in Latin America and the Caribbean, and over 400,000 HIV-positive young people between 15 and 24 years of age. Over 210 HIV-related deaths occur every day. A large proportion of these are women.

Environmental health:

We have also become recently painfully aware of the tremendous linkages between humans and the environment, those undefined surroundings that sustain our lives and that we have previously taken for granted as a steady platform.
Earthquakes, landslides, floods -- These massive events seen on real time by almost all the people living in the world, are changing our culture of solidarity

Damage on health and the environment varies according to economic development (as measured by the gross national product (GNP). For example, those living in high-mortality developing countries are more exposed in their local environment to deficiencies in water quality, inadequate sanitation and indoor air pollution, plus they are more vulnerable to global hazards such as climate change, UV radiation and ecosystem change that come with economic development. There is a transitional situation for developing countries that start their economic development on the fast track, where haphazard development with limited regulation/restrictions on the environment and immature institutions and workers organizations, expose people more frequently to chemicals, outdoor air pollution and unsafe workplace.

As we look globally, we see fully one-fourth of the disease burden due to environmental causes. And we also see that women in many cases bear the disproportionate burden. Domestic violence is one example. Occupational exposure is another. And, as we consider climate change, we find that women are on the front lines here as well. Women are the traditional stewards of the environment, they carry water and they work fields, they are the breadwinners and they stay behind with children and older adults when men migrate.

So, we have health challenges and we have leadership challenges. And, we have challenges of understanding gender considerations.

In devising the most sensible ways forward, we must draw on all the best minds to address this unfinished agenda.

We must empower women to engage as a critical part of the development

As scientists, women are a critical part of the solution. So we must empower them to engage, and to overcome antiquated notions of their proper roles.

We start to see glimmers of success. Just a few weeks ago, two groups teamed up to create a new network of researchers, one that is directly relevant to your work in the coming days. The International Center for Research on Women, based here in Washington, and the San Francisco AIDS Forum, will work to strengthen HIV prevention, treatment and care programs around the world. At the recent International AIDS conference in Mexico, they invited others to join them in creating a global network to fill research gaps and to act more strategically to reduce HIV. This is the kind of innovative thinking and collaboration that we need. It is the kind of research network that serves as a conduit for people to more easily and effectively coordinate resources and efforts, collaborate on research, and communicate new ideas.

And, at a meeting in July of the Regional Directors Group, representatives of UN agencies, funds and programs, there was consensus about the need to urge Ministers of Health and Education from the region to improve the availability and quality of sexuality education for young people. During the HIV AIDS Conference in Mexico these Ministers actually signed on to the commitment. We should all capitalize on this momentum.

And that brings us back to this room, and to all of you.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one new and very important adaptation that we expect for this pilot, and one very important group of women represented here today. At any earlier meeting hosted at NIH, it was decided that US Latinas should be brought into the community of thinkers and researchers working on this virtual program. Let me say that this was a brilliant recommendation.

Hispanic women in the United States have much to offer their counterparts in Latin America. And, they have much to learn from them! It is important to allow research collaborations to grow between these two powerful groups of women. It is my hope that the next phase of the program will provide the "glue" to do just that.

As we look at the pilot program this morning, I challenge you to think with us on how we could adapt this capacity building program for women researchers and use it to empower women working on AIDS, and women working on environmental health issues so they can take their place among the thinkers and change agents for a healthier world.

You are all here because you are experts - you are teachers, scientists, health professionals, information specialists. And, you are leaders. This mix of expertise is what we need to identify the very best next steps.

I want to thank you for the work that you are about to do on behalf of women throughout Latin America and for US Latinas.

I look forward to learning about your recommendations.

Thank you.

More information:

-SPANISH: Nota de Prensa de la OPS [08/01/2008]
Primera Reunión del Grupo Técnico Asesor de la Directora de la Organización Panamericana de la Salud (OPS) en materia de Género, Equidad y Salud.
OPS: Equidad de género avanza en las Américas, pero falta de voluntad política limita su extensión y su potencial en salud y desarrollo

For more information, please contact Velzeboer-Salcedo, Mrs. Marijke (WDC), PAHO Gender, Ethnicity & Health Coordinator.