Women's issues front and center

Anywhere there is violence —whether man-made or natural—people suffer. Women, however, typically suffer more. They are susceptible to rape and trafficking, and in danger zones, women lose their jobs faster and earlier. When parents or elders die, young girls—not men—step in as the caregivers

. These, according to Afaf Meleis, the Margaret Bond Simon Dean of Nursing, are some of the most pressing problems directly related to the health and wellness of women around the world. But the most harmful threat to women, she says, is silence about these issues.

That's why all 12 schools at Penn are participating in a two-day summit from April 25 to 26, called “Safe Womanhood in an Unsafe World.” In turn, the summit kicks off Penn's new Global Women's Health Initiative, which aims to organize all of the global initiatives across Penn into one coherent whole.

The summit features prominent speakers from across the University, including President Amy Gutmann and Past President Judith Rodin, as well as Justice Unity Dow, a high court judge in Botswana who helped pave the way for women's rights, and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. The idea behind this interdisciplinary approach, says Meleis, is that a discussion of better health care for women must also involve the subjects of human rights, education, policies and law.

On the first day of the summit, panels and keynote speakers will discuss, "Society's Impact on Women's Health." The second day will address “Strategies to Improve Women's Lives.”

"The major issues for women are major issues for anybody," says Meleis. —They are infections, they are violence, they are disasters. But you add to that those same things that make the world unsafe for anybody—you add gender— and oppression, and women are at a higher risk. They are more vulnerable.”

Meleis, who has studied the relationship between women's multiple roles and their health, says that Penn is in a unique position to address these complex issues, especially because faculty can give graduates a sense that they can effect some proactive change. Penn's position as a large university with 12 strong and diverse schools —and a voice that is respected around the world— makes it a perfect leader.

"I'm hoping it inspires Penn to really focus in a really systematic and coherent way on a social justice mission, especially around women's health issues," says Meleis.

Meleis worked closely with Arthur Rubenstein, executive vice president of the Health System and dean of the School of Medicine—among many other faculty members—to plan this event and initiative. She hopes it will put Penn on the map as the preeminent place to talk about and research substantial changes in women's health policy. “We need to just keep the issues very alive and keep them on the front burner.”

For more information on speakers and registration for the summit, “Safe Womanhood in an Unsafe World,” go to: www.nursing.upenn.edu /summit/

Originally published on March 31, 2005