New Center Focuses on Women's Health and Empowerment on Global Scale

By Robin Hindery on December 28, 2009

Phil Darney

UCSF and UCLA are spearheading a multicampus, multidisciplinary effort to advance women’s health and empowerment through education, research and community outreach.

The initiative is part of the newly launched UC Global Health Institute, which aims to harness the expertise of UC faculty across the 10-campus system to address the needs of the world’s most vulnerable populations. The institute’s administrative headquarters are located at UCSF and it is being co-led by Haile Debas, MD, former UCSF chancellor and executive director of UCSF Global Health Sciences.

Initially, the institute will comprise three centers of expertise: Women’s Health and Empowerment; Migration and Health; and Water, Animals, Food and Society. Those centers will lead the development of education programs, beginning with a one-year master’s degree program that is expected to enroll students in 2011. They will also design field projects for students at partnership sites throughout the world in conjunction with research in their areas of focus.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided a two-year planning grant to the Global Health Institute, but the operation will ultimately be self-supporting and will depend on gifts, grants and revenue from enrollment fees.

In a written proposal submitted in April, supporters of the new Center of Expertise on Women’s Health and Empowerment noted that despite significant advances in medical technology and therapies, women’s health continues to suffer due to poverty; limited access to education and economic opportunities; gender bias and discrimination; and lack of access to basic preventive health services like maternity care, contraception and safe abortion.

“These forces intersect to restrict access to vital women’s health services and to the information women need to better their own lives,” the proposal said. “Investing in women’s health and empowerment produces surplus benefits for their children, families, communities and nations.”

In November, shortly after receiving approval for the center, its leaders met at UCSF to start formulating a work plan and reaching out to members of various disciplines — from gynecology to psychology to nursing.

“From the get-go, our core group includes a lawyer, and we’re hoping to bring on board sociologists, people in the arts, and maybe even people with business backgrounds,” said the center’s co-director Paula Tavrow, PhD, who heads the Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health at the UCLA School of Public Health.

“To make major improvements in women’s health, you can’t look solely through a medical lens,” Tavrow said, “so we’re really trying to look more creatively and innovatively at how to achieve better health for women through less traditional mechanisms.”

Tavrow’s chief partner in this endeavor is Philip Darney, MD, UCSF professor and chief of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at San Francisco General Hospital.

Darney said he was excited to collaborate with Tavrow and others from a wide variety of fields and from other campuses, including the departments of obstetrics and gynecology at all five UC medical schools.

As a co-founder and co-director of UCSF’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, Darney has already confronted many of the health concerns the Center of Expertise plans to tackle, including maternal mortality and access to reproductive care and family planning services.

Under Darney and Tavrow’s leadership, the center will focus on assuring safe motherhood; reducing violence against women; improving contraceptives and access to family planning and reproductive technologies; advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights; preventing sexually transmitted infections; and eliminating environmental threats to women.

In addition, the directors hope to eventually offer a “sandwich program” in which students from partner institutions abroad will come to California to participate in certificate programs in women’s health and empowerment ranging from three months to one year.

Another goal at the center is a Women Leaders Program that will provide women from California and international partner organizations with training, mentorship, workshops and field experience so they can become influential advocates in the effort to close global gender gaps.

UCSF Chancellor Sue Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, has expressed her strong support for continuing to build on the University’s already strong international presence, which includes more than 400 faculty researchers working to advance health in more than 100 countries. Serving the local, regional and global communities and eliminating health disparities is also part of the vision outlined in the UCSF Strategic Plan, released in 2007.

Photo by Susan Merrell

Related Links:

New Initiatives Highlight UCSF’s Commitment to Advancing Global Health
UCSF Today, Nov. 16, 2009

UCSF’s Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health

UCSF National Center of Excellence in Women’s Health 

UCLA’s Bixby Program in Population and Reproductive Health