Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Women's health through women

This blogpost is participating in a Registered Dietitian Bloggerfest. Please check back daily and use the links below to read other RD's posts on Woman's Health. This post is dedicated to women coming together is special ways make the world a better place.

Last night I attended my first meeting with The Pleiades, a network of women working for a sustainable world. According to Wikipedia:
the Pleiades, or seven sisters, are an open star cluster in the constellation of Taurus. It is among the nearest star clusters to Earth and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. Pleiades has several meanings in different cultures and traditions.
The mission of our group, Pleiades, is to "create a network of leading women thinkers to be an inspirational force within the sustainability movement. Leveraging the talents of its diverse members, Pleiades provides strategic partnerships and educational initiatives that empower the role of women in restoring balance in our lives, our communities, and the natural world."

The group was the brain child of Kathleen Frith, Assistant Director of Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment that stemmed from an idea she had in her early 20's. Our first meeting was held at member Ana Sortun's Sofra Bakery and Cafe in Cambridge. We enjoyed delectable yet simple, healthy food made of conscientious ingredients and tasted some organic and biodynamic wines. While this seems like the typical "Slowfoodie" event often criticized for being elitist, a fly on the wall would argue that the conversation had this evening was far from elitist.

A round of introductions revealed accomplished writers, activists, scientists, mothers, health care providers, farmers, teachers, artists, environmentalists, all of course, women. I was humbled to be surrounded by such agents of change.

After we enjoyed some nourishment, we moved on to a discussion. Dr. Molly Kile, a research fellow and epidemiologist in the Department of Environmental Health shared her experience in Bangladesh. In the 70's Bangladesh had a Cholera outbreak that was being perpetuated by the people's use of surface water. The international community came together to help fund water pumps that would give the people access to ground water and help control the epidemics. What is saddening is now Bangladesh faces arsenic exposure at daunting levels. It is disheartening to attempt to solve one problem, only to unavoidably create another.

Molly went on to share her story of her recent visit to Uganda, a nation of 30 million people, which according to the World Health Organization had an estimated 10.6 million cases of malaria in 2006. The estimated 70,000 to 110,000 deaths a year seriously hampers economic development. Molly's descriptions of suffering was difficult to hear. Having worked in extreme poverty, she said that regardless, you can never prepare yourself.

What is interesting about this story, and so conflicting to Molly, is that Uganda is being pushed to spray the infamous insecticide DDT to control the mosquito populations. Since the publishing of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, DDT has been banned from the US for its serious wildlife and habitat destruction. While this isn't the only approach, unfortunately things come down to the price, and DDT is cheap and effective. Molly's memory of stepping over dying children conflicts with her knowledge of the repercussions of using DDT and is sympathetically felt.Those who understand sustainability know that trying to solve the malaria problem with DDT only leads us down a path of more complex issues. What seems a silver bullet is actually a shotshell, causing unapproachable damage.

Our conversation turned to some very difficult questions. What is out of balance in the system? How can balance be restored? How does population and population control play a role? How do we address issues culturally? Why is money alway at the root? What can I do?

As the intensity of the conversation began to lighten, Kathleen brought us full circle to answer the question, "What can I do?" Having just spent a couple hours hearing a story, asking questions and discussing what is often difficult to discuss, we had achieved a part of Kathleen's vision for the Pleiades: to learn from and support each other. Through one person's account we all knew a bit more about our world and our place in it. What is interesting about the Pleiades constellation is that it is easier to see clearly out of your peripheral vision. Our group hopes to be seen making change within the peripheral of our community and world.

In a world facing insurmountable issues like poverty, climate change, disease, water and food shortages, habitat destruction and economic downturn, we can often feel helpless. For many women, the strength of community helps lessen the burden and gives an arena to discuss solutions, but this gathering of women is also good for our health. According to a new study when women are under stress they release more oxytocin, which encourages us to care for children and hang out with other women, creating a “tend and befriend” notion developed by Drs. Laura Klein and Shelly Taylor.
Study after study has found that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol. “There’s no doubt,” says Dr. Klein, “that friends are helping us live.”
Want to make a difference in your community? Start a community women's group. Talk about the issues facing your neighborhood and your world. Be a source of strength for each other. A woman's traditional role in the society is the nurturer and our communities could use a bit more nourishment. By creating a space to have the talk that women have when they are together, you are being the change.

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