Posted by Katie Magoon
I was living in rural Kenya the first time I really began to think critically about the power and shortcomings of healthcare interventions. I stumbled upon this totally accidentally as I was studying the economic empowerment of females in the “informal sector” of Kenya’s rural economy. Specifically, I was exploring the ways in which women create and distribute their wealth, and the how these decisions impact the communities in which they live. As I looked more intimately into the lives of these women, I realized that one could not truly understand the role of a female in an economy without understanding a variety of aspects related to her health.
In talking with many women, it became clear that some of their economic concerns were in large part related to the number of children their husbands/communities expected them to have. Some women secretly obtained birth control in order to shelter their families from the economic hardships that they would face with having more and more children. In some cases, their husbands would begin to suspect this and abuse them or use it as an excuse to have extra-marital affairs with other women (often bringing home sexually transmitted infections or HIV). In many settings, women bear the brunt of raising families. As a result their individual health is extraordinarily important to the health of an individual female’s family as well as community. Issues such as lack of access to birth control, “back-alley” abortions, the dangers of childbirth, lack of empowerment for sexual decision-making and boundary setting, and even post partum depression can have a tremendous impact on the economic health of a community. Such issues were so pervasive in the lives of the women with whom I spoke that it quickly became clear that these women could not achieve economic security without accessible and effective healthcare that is responsive to their specific needs.
Many believe that these are problems that do not apply to women in the United States. I have found this belief to be grossly inaccurate. In my work as a nurse practitioner, I encounter young women every single day who are forced to have sex, pressured to leave school and have children, and struggle with depression and other mental health problems that can make employment and/or caring for children very difficult. Often these women put faith in their “boyfriend” who quickly moves on when their belly starts to grow or times get tough. A young woman may be left to support a family with very limited resources. Further, she has already stopped school to have and begin to raise the child, leaving her even more vulnerable to economic hardship. This has obvious implications for her family and community.
Health interventions can address a small portion of this problem by offering family planning to women. Women that do not want or are not ready to have more children can use birth control. If need be, they can do this without the knowledge of their partner. However, a woman is more likely to be successful with the use of her birth control if her partner is supportive. In my mind, this simultaneously points to a success and shortcoming of the health system. In this example, birth control is simply addressing a symptom of a larger problem in society—gender inequality. Birth control could be considered a single disparity-decreasing intervention that can help women, and in turn their communities. However, in a world that often does not value women as it values men, I cannot help but to ask: Is birth control enough? Internationally and domestically, when will women finally be empowered to make their own decisions about what happens to their bodies, and offered support for those decisions?
Katie Magoon is a North Canton, Ohio native who currently works as a nurse practitioner at an adolescent community center in Manhattan. She is an HPAM student, specializing in policy.