The Spiral of Women’s Health Activism

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The Women's Health Activist
January/February 2012

A report from the Global Symposium Celebrating 40 Years of Our Bodies, Ourselves

When 14 women got together around a kitchen table in Boston in 1970 to write Women and Their Bodies (which would later become Our Bodies, Ourselves), they had grand ambitions.  They knew their newsprint creation was much more than a book, and asked readers to view it instead “as a tool which stimulates discussion and action, which allows for new ideas and for change.” Through writing the book, the authors explained that they learned “how we could act together on our collective knowledge [about our bodies] to change the health care system for women and for all people.”

But they could not have imagined the impact their work would have, for women not only in the United States but also around the world. On the 40th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of OBOS, men and women gathered in Boston for a global symposium.  The day’s program included a welcome by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (D), in which he thanked the OBOS founders, saying, “This book has made me a better person,” as well as presentations by women from 11 of the more than 30 countries where OBOS has been translated and adapted.

Through its global initiative, the OBOS women’s health activist approach has supported publication and use of materials in more than 25 languages, in print, Braille, audio, digital, and social interactive formats.  The latest edition of the book – the ninth, published in the fall of 2011 – includes a chapter on relationships that grew out of a month-long on-line dialogue between women who engaged with each other on a broad range of intimate topics.

A legacy of challenging shame, stigma and repression

Sally Whelan, Program Director at OBOS, told the crowd assembled in Boston that she views the legacy of the original OBOS work to be the global transformations that have been produced.  The book now belongs, she said, to all the women around the world who have culturally adapted it to meet their communities’ needs. The anniversary symposium was an opportunity to learn about the legacy through the voices and experiences of the book’s new owners.

Women from the United States, Turkey, Japan and Tanzania shared their perspectives during a panel on how the OBOS creation process was similar and different in various places. In every case, for example, the project was collaborative and used the experiences of individual women as a guide for presenting evidence-based information.

And, virtually every woman who had been involved in an OBOS creation spoke about the shift from the beginning, when the anatomy and vocabulary of women’s bodies were unfamiliar and uncomfortable, to the end, when it felt more natural to talk openly about bodies and sexuality and to see images of what women actually look like. One audience member spoke of learning about her own body and menstruation by reading OBOS when she first came to the United States from Uganda and of wanting to call her sisters at home to tell them “You have vaginas!”

Some experiences were unique to each country, however, such as the dilemma facing the Japanese women, who decided not to use the kanji characters for women’s genitalia, because they connote dark and shady meanings.

During a panel on challenges to autonomy and activism, a co-author of the Serbian OBOS, explained how the experiences of Bosnian refugees who had been raped during the war shaped their book’s approach to sexual violence and drove home the knowledge that women’s health and lives are tightly linked to the social and political context in which we live. The project coordinator for the Indian Bengali language version — My Health, My Self — said that their book defied “the complete obliteration of sexuality from the common language” by publishing the first health information in Bengali on safer sex practices in same sex relationships. The panelists agreed that, when OBOS projects are created in a post-colonial context, it’s very important that the content be community-specific to avoid the trap of being dismissed as part of the Western/colonial model.

In the final panel, presenters discussed how their countries’ OBOS projects have fueled movement-building and political change. In Senegal, this meant confronting the nation’s health care provider shortage and the increased infant and maternal mortality that have resulted from structural adjustment policies that cut women’s health services. In Israel, it produced a challenge to ageist language and cultural constructions affecting older women in a society where the state invests substantial resources in fertility promotion. The Israeli project also bridged the fundamental divisions which affect the lives of every woman in the country by bringing Jewish and Arab women together to publish two books – one in Hebrew and one in Arabic – despite of the publishing industry’s objections that a book published in Arabic will not be profitable.

Early in the day, Jaclyn Friedman, the symposium’s mistress of ceremonies, explained her belief that women’s health activism moves in a spiral, not a circle, because while we are connected to our beginnings, we are also continually moving forward. The day’s discussions provided a perfect demonstration of that concept.

Changing lives and the world

The opening and closing keynotes of the day also mirrored the panel discussions’ themes. Loretta Ross, National Coordinator of SisterSong, noted that while OBOS “masquerades as just a health manual,” in fact, it is “one of the most subversive books out there, creating space for women to talk about issues not discussed in any other way in our societies.”  And Byllye Avery of the Black Women’s Health Imperative reminded the audience that the anniversary is not just about history but also about celebrating sustained activism.  It can’t stop with us, Avery said, ending with a call to action: “There’s still a woman’s health movement, and if you don’t know it, get in it!” (Videos of the event are at: http://www.youtube.com/user/ourbodiesourselves#p/c/21193CA7E013C735)

Amy Allina is the NWHN Program & Policy Director