Cherchez la femme in minority francophone communities

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There could not have been a more appropriate title for the workshop presented at the 2e Forum national de recherche sur la santé des communautés francophones en milieu minoritaire [Second national research forum on health in minority francophone communities]. Planned in collaboration with the Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne (AFFC) [Alliance of francophone Canadian women], the Cherchez la femme workshop was the first of its kind in Canada and speakers had set their sights high.

Since the creation of the Société Santé en français (SSF) [French health society] in 2002 and the Consortium national de formation en santé [National consortium for health education] in 2003, francophone institutions and organizations have seen increased opportunities for exchanges, networking and training in the health field. However, women's groups trying to gain recognition for their expertise and projects carried out by their members in the provinces and territories felt excluded. At a national meeting of minority francophone women's groups in March 2003, participants drafted a list of their accomplishments in the health field (published in the Compte rendu de la rencontre nationale sur la santé des femmes francophones, Coopérative Convergence, Ottawa, 2003). Although the list was not exhaustive, it spoke volumes about women's involvement in health and the creative ways they have contributed to the well-being of their communities. The participants also challenged the dominance of a cure-based biomedical approach and the direct provision of services, with little regard for a public health or holistic approach.

Today the situation is evolving and francophone women from both the community and academic sectors spoke out at the 2e Forum national de recherche sur la santé des communautés francophones en milieu minoritaire—where the women were present, but still not particularly visible. The purpose of Cherchez la femme was to take a first step toward understanding the problems and challenges faced by francophone women in their roles as health-care consumers, workers and volunteers.

In her opening remarks, Marie Dussault, Knowledge Exchange Coordinator at the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health, set the stage by discussing gender-based analysis (GBA), its advantages and its role in health research. Caroline Andrew, a professor in the School of Political Studies and director of the Centre on Governance at the University of Ottawa, made a presentation on governance in women's health from the perspective of the francophone minority and discussed opportunities and challenges they face. Cécile Coderre, a professor in the School of Social Work and Vice-Dean (Academic) at the University of Ottawa, gave the presentation Femmes, pauvreté, santé et violence : un mariage nocif [Women, poverty, health and violence: A toxic combination]. Observing that women are more at risk of poverty than men, she analyzed the situation for minority francophone women. The last speaker, Maggy Razafimbahiny, executive director of the Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne, presented the results of the first Canadian study on the role of volunteer caregivers and their needs, and the chair of the AFFC, Agathe Gaulin, provided the final summary comments of the meeting.

Problems particular to francophone women's health, or indeed women’s health in general, are not yet routinely the focus of studies, but hopefully this exercise will lead to other collaborations and an increased number of researchers—men and women in the community and academic sectors—will focus on gender as a biological and social determinant. Ignoring such questions could compromise the quality of research and the collection of evidence. But dealing with them could contribute to improving and even saving lives, promoting the well-being of families and communities, reducing health costs in some cases, and eventually could contribute to increased social justice.

Marie Dussault serves on the board of directors of  l'Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne (AFFC) as well as on the board of the Canadian Women's Health Network (CWHN). She is also Knowledge Exchange Coordinator at the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women's Health (BCCEWH).