Paving the Highways to Women's Health

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According to the author of the 1997 Guide to Health Care Resources on the Internet, "the Internet could be the single most effective influence of public policy since public demonstrations." Like a lot of technology enthusiasts, John Hoben sees the Internet as a "global repository of human knowledge open to everyone."

Hoben's suggestion that the Internet is 'open to everyone' doesn't mean that the Internet is 'accessible' to everyone. First you need equipment, then training, then you need to know what you need from the technology and how the tool can be used to further your objectives. Initiatives like the Saskatchewan government's $775,000 Women's Organizations On Line program are working examples of publicly supported programs aimed at improving women's access to information and networking on the Internet. The Saskatchewan Women's Secretariat is awarding up to $7,000 to community organizations and training is part of the project designed to make non-profit community organizations more effective.

A similar initiative in B.C. was started in 1996 and the Victoria Women's Sexual Assault Centre was one organization that took advantage of a provincial government-sponsored initiative, which included training and support. The centre is now using its web page to provide information on sexual assault and to make its public education materials more widely available. In Virtual Organizing, Real Change: Women's Groups Using the Internet, published by Women'space and edited by Jo Sutton and Scarlett Pollock, the centre credits e-mail with reducing the amount of time wasted playing telephone tag and trying to coordinate meetings. Using e-mail to distribute information before meetings has even enhanced the quality of face to face meetings.

Madeline Boscoe, executive coordinator of the Canadian Women's Health Network, says, "The real magic and promise of the Internet is its capacity to enhance dialogue, debate and networking and to build relationships. I believe it can facilitate democracy and increase empowerment of our citizens."

The Canadian Women's Health Network is a living example of this philosophy, relying on the dissemination of information via the Internet to maintain a strong national presence and strengthen links among women involved in health research and activism. With a coordinating committee and a national executive across the country, decision-making and development of policies often takes place via the modem rather than the boardroom.

On an individual basis, health consumers are using the Internet to find out more about their health and this poses challenges to physicians, who may not be accustomed to having patients informed about the latest research on their condition.

There is also a careful distinction to be made between 'information' and 'knowledge' Drug companies put up web sites on 'health issues' all the time, however most are thinly disguised advertisements for their drugs.

Many women's health organizations are using the Internet to share information, ideas and use their collective presence for research, lobbying or creating awareness. For health agencies trying to do more with less, the investment can save money and time as well as help groups and individuals make connections with others whose expertise can reduce our own workloads and allow the fruits of our labours to be shared with others. Through the Internet, the Canadian Women's Health Network can help bring women and organizations together to develop a more critical analysis of women's health issues, so that women can become informed of the latest in treatments and research.

Says Boscoe, "We could have avoided the breast implant or the Dalkon Shield fiascoes if we had utilized a consumer-based monitoring system."

Further Information

  • Virtual Organizing, Real Change: Women's Groups Using the Internet; Scarlet Pollock & Jo Sutton, editors, published by Women'space. How to Run a Successful Web Campaign and other examples of using the' Internet to enhance your objectives.
    Women'space can be reached at (902) 351-2283.
    Web site:

  • Global Networking for Change: Experiences from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) Women's Program; published in May 1997. An international survey of more than 100 organizations of women using the Internet, includes sections on technology and culture, difficulties in access, sharing resources and barriers. Contact:
    Association for Progressive Communications GreenNet Limited
    Bradley Close,
    74-77 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF, England
    Web site:

VolNet expected to include women
A new federally sponsored program to help voluntary organizations get on the Internet is expected to be announced soon by Industry Canada. Both the health sector and 'equality-seeking groups' are expected to be among those who can apply.

Jo Sutton, of Women'space, was part of a planning meeting last May where 27 women met to discuss VolNet and encourage Industry Canada to include equality-seeking groups in its eligibility criteria. The network of organizations spent plenty of time over the summer trying to ensure that equality-seeking women's groups would be included in the criteria, and it looks like a go.

"This process was possible through using the Internet - It gave us fast and relatively easy access to people. We knew our e-mails regularly landed on bureaucrats' desks, and they felt the need to respond," says Sutton.

VolNet is expected to spend $20 million over 3 years and include volunteer organizations whose focus is health, environment, social services, international development, sports, faith/religion, the arts and those with equality-seeking objectives. Details on VolNet are expected to be announced in April.