May 30, 2024

International Women’s Day 2024 Black women’s health is worth investing in

FOR many black women in the United States, 2024 started with a series of very public displays demonstrating the various challenges that are faced in society.  

For many of us, the aggressive path leading to the resignation of Dr Claudine Gay; the attempted public humbling of district-attorney Fani Willis; the workplace environment contributing to the death by suicide of Dr Antoinette Candia-Bailey; and the sudden deaths of Dr Edith Mitchell and Dr Debbie Ann Turner sent a collective chill through our bodies and souls.

These very public events also sent this chill not only because of the specific events, but also because of how familiar these trajectories felt in our own lives.  

No matter the socioeconomic status, age, or geography, the “prayer list” was getting deeper and longer, and the phone calls with notifications of transitions and illness were constant and ongoing.  

At one point I reached out to a number of black women in my ecosystem of organisers, strategists and activists rooted in the local, national and global community, to ask: “Are you seeing this? Are you getting as many calls? Does it seem like there is something happening?”

The answers were a collective, concerned, and resounding “Yes.”

The attacks on black women seemed to be bold and intense. The consequences of this ongoing environment — being disrespected, unprotected and neglected — was showing up in a number of ways in our bodies. 

“But for the grace of God, go I” was in many of our conversations as we all started listening deeper to our bodies and understanding how close we might be to one of the outcomes we had recently seen. 

As I reflect on 20 years as a physician and 30-plus years studying health, wellness and health systems, I’ve always been drawn to taking care of the people who take care of people — which in most places in the US is a black woman somewhere.  

For decades, I’ve participated in forums about the health of black women that focus on primarily two things.

First, the number of ways black women experience inequity in health and, second, the tactics we as black women should use to attempt to mitigate these outcomes. 

What has fascinated me is that while at every stage of my medical and wellness education, I’ve been taught about the way the body reacts to stress, trauma and violence.

These factors don’t always enter the landscape analysis or strategy to address black women’s health, even though black women experience so much violence and black transgender women’s experience rates of violence at alarming rates.  

This International Women’s Day is an opportunity to not only name the harms that affect black women’s health or celebrate the accomplishments of the amazing black women in our lives, it gives us all an opportunity to break the cycle of harm and instead invest in strategies that provide space for respect, protection, care, rest and joy.  

In all segments of the population, exposure to all types of violence, which can include bullying, assault and “microaggressions,” can contribute to detrimental health effects such as asthma, hypertension, cancer, stroke, mental health challenges and other disorders.

According to data, black women are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to die from cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, lupus, and several cancers. They are also twice as likely as white women to develop diabetes over age 55 or have uncontrolled blood pressure. 

Black women also face greater challenges in accessing affordable and quality healthcare, including a lack of health insurance, higher medical debt, and longer travel times to hospitals in the US.

On this International Women’s Day, there are a number of practical steps that can be taken to contribute to the health and well-being of black women.  

Support the Bipartisan Protect Black Women and Girls Act put forward by Democrat representative from Illinois Robin Kelly. 

 Kelly said the Act would be used to “leverage the full weight of the federal government to seek justice for black women and girls who deserve an equal opportunity for a full, happy, healthy life.”

Second, support, invest in, and follow black women leaders and creatives seeking to build healthy black women’s futures.   

Also Ifeomasinachi Ike’s book, Equity Mindset, speaks on “The Case for Radical Sabbaticals,” while adrienne maree brown and Sonya Renee Taylor introduce us to Journal of Radical Permission, A Daily Guide for Following Your Soul’s Calling.

Esther Armah’s Emotional Justice speaks in beautiful ways about the emotional labour that black women are often required to give in life and workspaces, and how all of society can unlearn the behaviors that extract black women to exhaustion. 

The Southern Black Women and Girls is led by four anchor institutions, including the Appalachian Community Fund, the BlackBelt Community Foundation, the Fund for Southern Communities and the TruthSpeaks Innovation Foundation and creates amazing healing opportunities. 

There are so many more people and organisation’s working at the national and community level to build lovely healthy futures for black women and girls. 

Audre Lorde said: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Most of all, black women, give yourselves an abundance of grace. For decades, my mum has deployed a practice of sitting quietly and checking in with her body; some call this a “body scan.” 

I joined her in this practice in my thirties, and now that we are in our fifties and seventies we often take the time to practice together.  

The moment to just check in with your own body, mind, and spirit in a way that suspends judgement and just notice the trials and triumphs of the day can be the medicine you need. This is one of my favourite tools.  

Please share yours with your beloved community that is lovingly invested in your health and well-being. 

Ultimately, because society in the US has traditionally contributed so much to the challenges to black women’s health, it only follows that everyone, not just black women, has a part to play in investing in one. 

This International Women’s Day, let’s celebrate by deciding to act for the healthy, wealthy and joyful black women’s future. 

Dr L Toni Lewis is a New York City-based physician and co-founder of the Global African Workers Institute, a former chair of the SEIU health committee and founder of Liberation Health Strategies.

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