Sunday, July 21, 2013

Improving refugee women’s access to reproductive health on the Thailand-Burma border

Jillian Gedeon playing a sexual health version of snakes and ladders with Burmese women.
Jillian Gedeon (right) playing a sexual health version of snakes and ladders with Burmese women.
In a report released by the World Health Organization, an estimated 21.6 million unsafe abortions took place worldwide in 2008, almost all in developing countries. This frightening number is what drives the work of Jillian Gedeon, master’s student in interdisciplinary health sciences. Spending her summer living in and working from Mae Sot, a small town in western Thailand, Gedeon is conducting research on the post-abortion care and family planning experiences of Burmese refugee and migrant populations on the Thailand-Burma border. 

 “My study is looking at women’s experiences with the IUD [intrauterine device], which was introduced to the community as part of an interventional study two years ago,” explains Gedeon. “So many women and youth experience barriers to reproductive health, and it is my mission in life to help increase access. My results will hopefully inform the medics that work here how to better provide contraceptives, but more specifically the IUD.” According to Burmese law, abortions are illegal unless necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman. Many women resort to unsafe methods such as sticks and herbal medicines to induce abortion themselves, often leading to very serious and sometimes life-threatening situations.

 “About 50% of maternal mortality along the Thailand-Burma border is due to unsafe abortions,” she explains. Gedeon has been working closely with the Mae Tao Clinic, Mae Sot’s main Burmese clinic, located about five kilometres from the Burmese border, to collect the data for her research. The clinic’s proximity to the border attracts hundreds of women who come to Thailand to escape the political situation in Burma and hope to get reliable and free healthcare. Although Thailand has less restrictive laws around abortions, Burmese women still have little access due to their being illegal migrants and the risk of being deported back to their country. “It’s quite unfortunate that a woman’s legal status will determine her health,” says Gedeon. “Both my parents were refugees when they immigrated to Canada and the struggles they went through really inspired me to help other refugees who face the same problems.”

 Upon her return to uOttawa in September, Gedeon will begin writing her thesis. She hopes to have a career focused on refugee women and reproductive health. In recognition of her commitment and efforts to improve the health of women, the Council of Ontario Universities presented her with a research award of up to $19,000.