On Women's Health Issues

Postcard From Beijing

Editor's note: A Crimson reporter recently had the opportunity to be a guest at an international women's health conference in China. Here in his report.

BEIJING, China--Against the backdrop of the Great Wall, for centuries the symbol of exclusion from this country, an atmosphere of openness marked a gathering last month of women's health specialists.

A gathering of 350 experts from 23 nations, the International Conference on Women's Health, took place over the days spanning March 27 to April 8 as an opportunity to focus attention on and exchange ideas related to women's health.

As the conference's participants explored issues surrounding women's health, they also had the chance to explore one of the largest nations in the world, starting in Beijing and moving to cities of Xian, Shanghai, and Suzhou.

The conference stressed interdisciplinary approches, according to Amanda C. Maurer, vice-president of the Foundation of for International Cooperation and Development and director of the conference.

"There needs to be more unity in that one needs to recognize the contributions of other groups, "Maurer said.

Among the conference's resolutions was one directed at the United Nations imploring them to address some of the key problems women face across the world.

Included in the resolution were concerns over increasing levels of "domestic and social violence" against women, insufficient attention toward the "unique health care needs of women," the "high rate of morbidity and mortality of women across the life cycle" and also continual "stereotyping of women across the life cycle."

And the world of Chinese health care was open for all conference participants to view and query, said Maurer.

"[The non-Chinese participants] were able to see first-hand a lot of different levels of health care and speak to different types of people," said Maurer. "I think it's an incredible experience."

Both at the site visits and in the paper presentations, participants were introduced to the unique Chinese medical system which, in a sense, straddles the centuries. The practitioners of traditional medicine, so-called "bare-foot doctors" still practice in rural areas and are a vital part of the primary health care system.

Techniques such as acupuncture and herbal therapy are not solely the property of rural practitioners. On a visit to the premier mental hospital in Beijing. Westerners observed acupuncture being used to treat neurosis and depression.

Dr. Kathy Sanders, Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital said the presence of positive role models for the Chinese women participants.

Sanders said the presence of prominent women leaders and professionals gave a "boost in the arm" to the women's hotline, and also provided a positive role model for female participants in the conference.

"It's speaking the things we were very radical about in the 70s which were just starting to be said here in 1988 [which helps the women's movement in China]", said Sanders.

The Western participants were taken as a group to see the conditions of health care at the Shunyi County Hospital, about an hour and a half outside Beijing.

Upon arriving, the delegates were greeted by applause from the hospital staff, waiting outside in their white uniforms, and some patients could be seen looking on with interest from the windows.

After touring the hospital, Shunyi County health officials presented the status and goals of health care for women and children. One of the most impressive statistics was the reduction in maternal mortality rate, to the point where there were no deaths from childbirth reported last year.

Maurer expressed hope that the learning experiences gained by the gathered experts may eventually translate into better care in their own countries.

"The participants are going to take the information they received and pass it on to their communities," she said. "[We] saw in China that they do have different approaches [from the west] and yet they are providing good health care."