Racism: A threat to women’s health

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Publication Date: 
Thu, 2013-03-21

International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – March 21

Racism: A Threat to Women’s Health - Compiled by Susan White

Every year on March 21, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed around the world. It commemorates the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, in which 69 people were killed by police, 8 of them women, and another 130 were injured, during a protest against South African apartheid. Today, it serves to remind us that racism continues to be a threat to women’s health and well-being. In Canada we have historically liked to think of racism as a U.S. problem, but we must honestly face the truth that it continues to kill, sicken and diminish the lives of Aboriginal women and women of colour in our country every day.

Racism sickens and kills first and foremost through poverty. A legacy of systematic economic inequality and racial discrimination, on-going today, results in higher poverty rates among Aboriginal people and people of colour. Research shows clearly that poverty is the number one social determinant of women’s health. This is compounded by unequal access to health care among Aboriginal, recent immigrant and refugee women, and exacerbated by lack of awareness and training among health care providers. There is also too little research on the specific health situations and needs of Aboriginal people and people of colour.

Racism and Women’s Health in Canada

Racism is increasingly being recognized as a barrier to good health and health care services in Canada, as a recent report from the Wellesley Institute shows. Much of the work done on the impact of racism on women's health in particular examines the experiences of recent immigrant and refugee women. While all immigrants to Canada experience a decline in their health status, women, particularly those from non-European countries, report the steepest decline. Several books and articles examine this experience.

Sheryl Nestel. (2012). Colour Coded Health Care: The Impact of Race and Racism on Canadians’ Health. Wellesley Institute.

While not focused on women, this new literature review offers a survey of relevant academic and community-based research on racial disparities in the health of Canadians appearing between 1990-2010. In addition to surveying the research on mortality and morbidity by racialized groups in Canada, it surveys the evidence of bias, discrimination and stereotyping in health care delivery.
Available at the Wellesley Institute website.

Pollock, Grace, K. Bruce Newbold, Ginette Lafrenière and Sara Edge. (2012). Discrimination in the doctor’s office: Immigrants and refugee experiences. Critical Social Work, 13(2): 61-79.

This paper examines the role of discrimination on the part of health and social service providers and their staff through a study of immigrant and refugee perceptions of discrimination in five southern Ontario communities. While not focusing specifically on women, it does report women’s experiences.

Available at the University of Windsor website.