The Environment X Women interactive workshop series, which ran throughout September, set out to better understand environmental impacts on maternal, reproductive and mental health. Billie Turner reflects on the online workshops.
Climate change is now widely regarded as the biggest threat to public health in the 21st Century; resulting in extreme weather events, changes in ecosystems, loss of biodiversity, water shortages, stresses on food-producing systems, exposure to toxins and increased risk of pandemic outbreaks like COVID-19. Women in the Global South are disproportionately negatively impacted by environmental threats; women who are already in marginalised positions are particularly vulnerable, especially those who are lower class, indigenous or who live in rural areas.
The Environment X Women (ExWH) interactive workshop series, which ran throughout September, organised by Dr Laura J Brown and Dr Elaine C Flores, set out to better understand environmental impacts on maternal, reproductive and mental health. As a student of Global Public Health and Policy interested in this area of research, I was invited to be part of the Environment X Women project assistant team, along with Valeria Florez and Natalia Zúñiga Arbildo . In this blog post, I share my reflections on some of the key themes highlighted in the workshops.
The workshops were originally organised to take place in London and Lima in June, but due to COVID-19 restrictions they were postponed until September and rescheduled as an online workshop series with the support of LSE’s Global Health Initiative. Although it was a shame to miss out on the chance to meet in person, the online format brought people together from all over the world, bridging the gap between continents and creating an accessible space for early careers researchers to present their work and engage in discussion.
Each workshop included short presentations from experts in demography, psychology, sociology, epidemiology, population health and beyond. The presentations were accompanied by live translations from and to Spanish and English and followed by interactive discussion groups and Q&A sessions, facilitated by myself and the bilingual Environment X Women team.
Workshop 1 held on 03 September 2020
The first workshop opened with a presentation from Dr Katie Dow, a senior research associate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge, and deputy director of the Reproductive Sociology Research Group (ReproSoc). Katie discussed her ongoing research projects, which focus on the connections between reproduction and environmental concerns. The Liveable Futures project with Dr Heather McMullen which explores reproductive decision-making for women in the Global North in the face of climate change particularly resonated with me. The impossibility of protecting future generations from environmental threats is a concern many people are currently grappling with, especially in the midst of the uncertainty and increased anxiety surrounding the current pandemic.
The impossibility of protecting future generations from environmental threats is a concern many people are currently grappling with, especially in the midst of the uncertainty and increased anxiety surrounding the current pandemic.
The second speaker was Tahseen Jafry, the Director of GCU’s Centre for Climate Justice. Tahseen described her own experiences coordinating research and development projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Small Island States. She focused on two case studies from Malawi and India, examining the interconnections between climate change, mental health and gender-based violence, which is shown to increase in post natural-disaster settings. Tasheen’s accounts of the physical and sexual violence and extreme psychological distress experienced by women in these communities were harrowing, but she also described their incredible resilience and hope for the future.
The key theme I took away from this first workshop was that women in the Global North suffering from eco-anxiety and feelings of powerlessness can learn a lot from the resilience, decision making-power and strategies of women in the Global South in the face of crisis. Katie and Tasheen both ended their presentation with messages of hope, encouraging women around the world to work together to create nurturing, positive stable environments for all future generations.
Workshop 2 held on 10 September 2020
In workshop 2, speakers Kathryn Grace, Liliana Andriano, Murylo Batista, Valeria Urbina Cordano, Ileana Rojas and Amanda Veile discussed various environmental links with maternal and reproductive health, covering projects from a range of low and middle-income country contexts, from Malawi to Peru.
Highlighting Valeria Urbina Cordano’s presentation, she is a Peruvian political scientist and specialist in gender issues and women’s rights in extractive contexts. Valeria gave an insightful presentation on the gendered health impacts of the mining industry on women’s health in Peru. Mega-extraction projects underway throughout Peru leave women with prolonged exposure to toxic metals which cause various chronic health problems, including memory loss, infertility, miscarriages, loss of vision, diabetes, liver diseases, kidney failure, cancer and irreversible harm to foetal development. Valeria’s research focused both on the impact on women’s physical sexual and reproductive health, and their economic and decision-making autonomy.
Mega-extraction projects underway throughout Peru leave women with prolonged exposure to toxic metals which cause various chronic health problems, including memory loss, infertility, miscarriages, loss of vision, diabetes, liver diseases, kidney failure, cancer and irreversible harm to foetal development.
The six short presentations were followed by ‘breakout room’ small group discussions where participants were invited to network and share ideas. I facilitated one breakout room, where I had the chance to speak with Liliana Andriano, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science at the University of Oxford. We discussed her latest research which explores how the effects of drought impact the life-course transitions of young women in Malawi. Liliana, who is a demographer by training, highlighted one of the key themes raised in the second workshop which was the importance of interdisciplinary approaches that use both qualitative and quantitative data in examining the complex social and demographic implications of climate change.
Workshop 3 held on 17 September
In workshop 3, speakers Chantal Victoria Bright, Antonella Bancalari, David Astudillo-Rueda, Annel B. Rojas Alvarado, Mikaela Patrick & Winnie Chelagat, and hosts Laura J Brown and Elaine C Flores, discussed different topics related to the environment-gender-health nexus ranging from sanitation, to mental health, to planetary health justice. For me, the theme that stood out in the third workshop was that addressing environmental impacts on women’s health requires creative solutions.
As an example, Chantal Victoria Bright presented her children’s story book Inside Janjay which was designed to teach young girls in Africa, as the primary water collectors in their communities, about the global issue of access to clean water and the associated health risks. This led to questions about the potential of children’s literature in raising awareness about environmental threats to women’s health in local contexts.
Also, Mikaela Patrick, researcher and architectural designer and Winnie Chelagat, co-founder of Maternal Aid for Mothers in Africa, discussed the development of a framework of planetary health justice linking participatory research and design practices with ecofeminist approaches. They presented practical examples of Global South design projects that connect health and climate, drawing on their recent work in Kenya which looks at designing solutions for maternal health challenges in a harsh climatic context.
It was great to hear from a range of academics and specialists across the world at different stages of their careers. Annel B. Rojas Alvarado and David Astudillo-Rueda, both medical students from Peru, presented their research projects done as interns of Emerge Piura – the research unit of emerging diseases and climate change at University of Piura, measuring post-traumatic stress disorder in two communities in Peru following El Niño flooding in 2017. After the presentations, I facilitated an open audience Q&A session, directing questions from participants to each speaker which resulted in a lively online discussion.
Creating an ExWH network
From my perspective in the workshop series, I was struck by how the interactive online format democratised the traditional academic space of the university, encouraging open knowledge exchange and breaking physical barriers between the Global North and Global South.
For the future Environment x Women’s Health project outcomes, our hope is that this newly established network of global health academics, practitioners and specialists will be a united voice in calling for a more gendered approach to environmental health research and international policy making that urgently addresses the direct link between environmental threats and women’s health.
Keep an eye on the Environment X Women website for updates and information on future workshops!
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Global Health Initiative blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.