New risks in a new setting

A McGill seminar addresses the impact of immigration on women’s health

This past Monday, the Institute for Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies (IGSF) at McGill hosted a seminar that discussed the ways that both biology and gender roles put immigrant women at higher risks of health problems. As immigrants constitute more than 18 per cent of the Canadian population, the health of this subgroup is a pertinent issue.

The speaker was Julie Cwikel, a social epidemiologist and director of Israel’s only academic center on women’s health, that is, the Center for Women’s Health Studies and Promotion at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. She identified several factors that make women more vulnerable to various health issues. First, she emphasized women’s role as “buffers” during the immigration process. Often it is men – husbands or fathers – who make the decision to emigrate, and women follow along. When the transition to a new environment takes place, stress and trauma accumulate before, during, and after the process. This is especially dangerous to women – men tend to bring anger and frustration into the household, potentially resulting in women having adverse health issues, or being put in situations of domestic violence.

Furthermore, women’s reproductive role may lead to health risks, as their reproductive years coincide with their working years. The double role of being a worker outside of home, and a mother in the household confers on women a larger responsibility, and, thus, considerable stress while trying to adapt to the different physical, social, cultural, and political environment of the host country. Cwikel, in her talk, pressed Canadian society to give greater recognition to women who manage more responsibilities.

She also urged Canadian health care to provide a more welcoming medical environment to immigrant women. Medical staff who understand the culture and customs of a woman’s origin can make her feel more comfortable about the services she receives, especially regarding delivery. “Diversity is a key,” Cwikel said, as she recommended more investment in training and educating staff so that they can become more sensitive to different customs. Moreover, Medicare can be made more accessible by offering consultation in the immigrant’s native language or providing translation for medical advice.

By current law, new immigrants in Canada start to receive health care three months after they arrive. They are strongly advised to apply for private health services during the first three months, but specifications regarding “where” and “how” are unclear. For the immigrants who are not accustomed to the language or the Canadian system, the process may be arduous. As many immigrants are susceptible to diseases upon their first arrival, Cwikel proposes to make health care resources, if not free, at least widely available and easy to use.

Cwikel provides a simple answer to the question on how to advocate for women’s health. “Educating women about their own health is the first major step,” she said. “It raises an awareness of the health risks many women are prone to. [Women] need to be advocates for [themselves], not only for [their] children and family.”