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Women and Girls Institute Discusses Intersection of Technology and Art at Annual Conference


Since its inception in 2001, the Fordham Institute for Women and Girls has prioritized the safety and well-being of women worldwide. And while society has raised the bar on inequality issues in the last 22 years, there is still much more work to do. The Institute for Women and Girls held its annual conference to advocate for that work this month.

“I’m encouraged by hearing about women who have a high-level administrative or political position,” said Elaine Congress, D.S.W., GSS professor and associate dean, co-chair of the Institute, in her opening remarks. “But I’m also discouraged. Violence against women has increased everywhere, and indigenous women have been particular victims here in the United States. There’s a serious threat to reproductive freedom, migrant women are under siege, and most of all, many women around the world have had their basic freedoms, and the pursuit of education thwarted.”

The conference, titled “Advocating for the Rights of All Women: The Power of Technology and Art,” was held virtually and co-sponsored by the International Health Awareness Network (IHAN), a 501(3)(c) nonprofit that operates in consultative status with the United Nations. Representing IHAN at the conference were Founding IHAN President Sorosh Roshan, M.D., and current IHAN President Gabrielle Casper, M.D. Fordham GSS Associate Professor and co-chair of the Institute for Women and Girls Sandra Turner, Ph.D., also attended.

Fordham GSS MSW students also played a large role in the organization and execution of the conference. Chelsea Bonosky, Erica Udlow, and Michael Buckhout were instrumental in the night’s success. 

Voices of the Iranian Diaspora

Mandy Ansari, co-founder of the Iranian Diaspora Collective (IDC)—a nonpartisan, multi-faith group that aims to spread accurate, on-the-ground information about what’s currently happening in Iran—served as keynote speaker. Ansari, an Iranian immigrant herself, spoke of the country’s cultural shift due to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and how, to this day, women and girls are fighting for fundamental human rights like the pursuit of education. 

“When that revolution took over, women became second-class citizens,” Ansari said, listing off a cadre of daily items women still cannot do in Iran, like riding a bike or wearing red lipstick. 

Ansari explained that the protests advocating for Iranian women’s rights began in 1979 and continue today, with nearly 19,000 protestors currently held captive in Iranian jails for their efforts. The most significant difference now, however, is the power of the internet. Iranian protests aren’t contained to Iran anymore; they’re happening worldwide. 

“This revolution is being live-streamed,” she said. “This next generation … is fearless and wants people to know what they’re being attacked for.” 

Whether that be the videos of 16-year-old Iranian girl Sarina Esmailzadeh, killed for protesting in 2016, or the hashtag #Mahsaamini, which has been used over 90 million times on social media to bring awareness to the murder of 22-year-old Iranian Masha Amini, protestors are taking to the internet and informing the world about these wrongdoings. 

However, Ansari didn’t feel the mainstream media gave sufficient attention to these events and wanted to do something about it. So, in October 2022, the IDC started fundraising. The group raised over $300,000 to launch the “Be Our Voice” campaign, which secured over 136 billboards and activations across Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and New York City. The campaign generated 20M+ impressions and reached nearly 190M people through social media, broadcast, and press.

“Resistance and resilience have had to become a part of who these [Iranian] women are,” Ansari said. “Until we all unify and advocate for one another, we can’t be successful in whatever we’re trying to do. And if we don’t have the support of our allies, the movement can only go so far.”

Ansari closed with advice to all attendees: don’t let fear stop you from advocating for what you believe in. 

“If there is a cause you’re passionate about, it’s really important not to be afraid to make a mistake,” she said. “Be bold enough to be educated on what we don’t know enough about. Ask how we can be stronger together.”

Lessons in Medicine

The conference’s international focus shifted from Iran to Australia when Dr. Gabielle Casper took the floor. Casper, a gynecologist, professor, and head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Notre Dame, Australia, acknowledged that while health issues for women and girls are given global attention, oftentimes, those living in rural or poorer areas get left out of those conversations. In addition, Casper recognized the theme for this year’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is “Innovation and Technological Change in the Digital Age.” 

So we have decided to combine these two things,” Casper said, speaking of the pre-recorded presentations by her medical students, who were also in attendance. “The presentations will be on rural women’s health challenges and innovation in a technological world.”

The first student presentation, “Global Burden of Disease for Women,” by Stephanie Spartalis and Katherine McCready, discussed that non-communicable diseases now represent the leading cause of death among women and girls worldwide, particularly impacting those from middle- and low-income areas. In addition, while telehealth has improved care in Australia, COVID-19 has increased women’s communicable disease risk, thus putting those with non-communicable diseases more at risk than they already were. 

“Non-communicable disease, prevention, and care need to become a priority,” McCready said. “Rural and disadvantaged women are disproportionately represented in non-communicable deaths.”

Stephanie Spartalis and Katherine McCready discuss COVID-19’s threat to global health progress  

The next presentation, “The Growth of Telehealth in Australia,” featured Priyanka Pinto and Shen Rui Yap. The two students discussed the increase of Australian telehealth use in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how many of those services have remained permanent due to increased convenience and safety, the latter being particularly important during the pandemic as the world confronted an extremely infectious virus. 

“Although telehealth has been around for a long time in Australia, the uptake has been limited and is mostly used in rural and remote communities,” Yap said. “It has grown significantly in Australia since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has played a crucial role in improving the health outcomes of Australians by improving the access to health care services, especially during the pandemic lockdown.”

Priyanka Pinto and Shen Rui Yap conclude their presentation on Australian telehealth use.

Third-year medical students Tessa Hunt and Constance Malliaras followed by keeping with the theme of health in the digital age with their presentation “Technology Supporting Public Health.” The two discussed the tech revolution sweeping the health sector, with artificial intelligence, drones, and even robots all playing roles in increasing access to quality care — specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We saw the sharing of epidemiological modeling and viral genomes facilitate the rapid development of vaccines, including the new mRNA method, pushing research beyond its previous limits,” Malliaras said. “From a public health perspective, we saw the introduction of digital contact tracing and QR code scanning assist epidemiological advancement. We also saw the pandemic force the rapid development of telemedicine services, which, although imperfect, are now established and relied upon in rural health services within Australia.”

However, this technology comes with challenges, including data security and protection, patient inequity, and cost. 

“We are currently at a pivotal point which provides us with a unique opportunity to act proactively rather than reactively in addressing inequalities for low and middle-income countries,” Hunt explained. 

Tessa Hunt and Constance Malliaras talk tech revolution in health care.

While technology is a great step toward increasing access to care, how can physicians and other health care professionals push for further systemic progress? Rianna Ledwos, Imogen Walsh, and Ellen van der Geest covered that in their presentation, “Health Professionals as Advocates for Change.”

“Health advocacy is the process by which physicians responsibly use their expertise to promote human health and well-being through channels of social, political, economic, and educational change,” Walsh said. “Physicians have working roles that are inherently set up for advocacy, as they work closely with communities, understanding their needs and disadvantages, and often speaking on their behalf, in order to mobilize resources for positive change.”

The presentation highlighted that junior physicians overwhelmingly do not see advocacy as part of their roles, with increasing workplace demands, time constraints, and limited exposure to experiential training all playing a part in that statistic. And how should health care promote more physicians to advocate for positive change, the presenters asked? Start with their education. 

“It has been shown that training students in advocacy helps them to foster reasoning skills and sensibly tackle the complex ethical issues that inevitably arise while providing health care,” Walsh continued. “The current literature suggests that advocacy training is essential for the development of future physicians who will help all communities access the health care they deserve.”

How to advocate for change, with Rianna Ledwos, Imogen Walsh, and Ellen van der Geest.

Cultural Revelations Through Dance

After this education from the Notre Dame students on global technological innovations in health care, the conference explored its second title theme: art. 

Dance has long been a vital expression of human culture and emotion. Fordham GSS MSW student Chelsea Bonosky, GSS ‘23, a professional dancer for the last 14 years, introduced the next segment — a clip from the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s Lincoln Center performance of its famous work Revelations.

Alvin Ailey Dance Company was developed, Bonosky said, from a 1958 performance at the 92nd street YMCA in NYC, in which Ailey himself “led a group of young, African American modern dancers” in a segment that “changed the whole perception of modern dance.” So much so, Bonosky continued, that in 2008, a U.S. Congressional Resolution designated the company as a vital American cultural ambassador to the world “that celebrates the uniqueness of the African American cultural experience and the preservation and enrichment of the American modern dance heritage.”

Revelations uses African American spirituals, song sermons, gospel songs, and holy blues, and really explores the places of deepest grief …  in your soul. And it has become a true cultural treasure,” she said.

Multi-Disciplined Advocacy

Congress began the conference by denouncing the existence of siloes in academic and advocacy work. In her closing remarks, she emphasized the importance of being multi-disciplined in your approach to making change. 

“We have medicine and social work here; I am also a psychologist, Chelsea is a social work student and dancer — we often have to be multi-disciplinary,” she said. “That’s another way to advocate. You go into many different areas, and you bring your advocacy into those areas.” 

For those more interested in the conference and the Institute for Women and Girls, you can watch the entire conference and visit the Women and Girls Institute web page on the Fordham GSS website.


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