Tag Archives: health

Defeat via Gender?

I just finished reading an amazing book, The Places in Between, about an adventure taken by a young man through Afghanistan in 2002, right after the Taliban fell. He decides to follow the famous Emperor Babur’s footsteps, walking across Afghani terrain to Kabul. Weaving the tale with threads of personal anecdote, history and observations of another culture, Rory Stewart’s adventure held my attention captive. He tells of evenings sitting with men discussing local politics and religion; moments of possible danger, trying to understand the motives of individuals, what the best answer to a question would be given the region and religion; he tells of moments of loneliness, uncertainty, and ultimately triumph when he accomplishes his goal. I looked forward to sitting down to read a chapter during a quiet period, holding a cup of tea close, taking in each scene he portrayed, the emotions he felt, the physical difficulties he endured.


What made him successful? Firstly, Rory’s knowledge of the language, culture and religion was of great importance in his journey, enabling him to get out of several very dangerous situations. Secondly, he is generally in good health, although experiencing some sickness on the trip. Finally, he is a man. In an Islamic society, I highly doubt a single woman, no matter her nationality, would be able to take such a journey alone. At one village, Rory describes that the women had never left that village, not to even visit a neighboring one. A woman traveler therefore might be at constant danger from local men who believe it is wrong for a woman to walk alone. As Rory often slept in mosques or village leader’s houses, there might not be a place for her to sleep, as she might not be welcomed.


While reading his memoir, I felt a certain sadness, due to the fact that I don’t think it would be possible for me to complete a similar trip. I’ve had almost a year of travel and living in new cultures, but my travels have stayed within certain limits. I was never in a place where I couldn’t get food or water, or where my safety was continuously threatened, or where my gender put me at a larger disadvantage.

But there are two strikes against me completing a similar journey to Rory’s: the first, having T1 diabetes. This is a huge logistical challenge, requiring a lot of attention and dedication, but can be overcome. But the second challenge, that of being female, is much more difficult to more beyond. As a woman, I am unsure I would be able to walk alone for hundreds of miles across an Asian, Middle Eastern or African state without putting myself in extreme danger, simply due to my gender.


Working so hard to pursue the dreams that motivate me, I have been able to overcome the challenges of Type 1 Diabetes in moving to Kenya, traveling solo in different countries and cultures, and learning about my body and limits. So how can something as basic as gender be the Achilles heel of adventures?




“It is better to have HIV, than to have cancer”.

This statement was made by Akinyi, the mother who lives with her 7-year-old son on the compound with me and looks after the area. We were sitting in the kitchen, her in front of the wood-burning cooking stove stirring milk tea, me sitting on the floor that had been smeared with cow dung and clay a few days prior. We sit most days and talk, becoming more frank as our comfort with each other increases. This statement, however, took me by surprise. She explained her reasoning for saying this: in Kenya, ARVs are relatively easy to get, as NGOs and rich Western countries have flooded clinics and hospitals with either free, or very inexpensive forms. But as HIV becomes less of a death threat, and more of a chronic illness, other diseases are starting to be identified as life-threatening… cancer is among them. I saw an article a few weeks back in one of the Kenyan national newspapers about breast cancer’s large impact in Kenya. But I didn’t think much of it, as cancer is a problem most everywhere. But as Akinyi continued to tell me, there isn’t much equipment or drug supply to treat cancer, making it inaccessible to the vast majority of Kenyans, rich or poor. In Kenya, if you have cancer, you go back to your house and lay and rest until you pass… cancer literally means death. I think back over the weeks I’ve been here, and realize I’ve been seeing it, assuming people were getting treatment… most recently, a man with a hugely distended, perfectly spherical stomach, coming out of the general hospital. The longer I live here, and the more I see, I believe more strongly that health care isn’t simply a universal human right, it is a privilege, and one that many don’t have. Universally, human bodies falter, fail and are in need of repair to continue life… and this care isn’t available. How do we lower the cost of health care universally? I read an article recently in the New England Journal of Medicine discussing the cost versus need of HPV vaccination in developing countries… in the US, this cost is around $360, far above what most families in rural Kenya earn in 3 months. And yet, cervical cancer is the second most deadly cancer for women, regardless of country or region.

There are far more health issues in Kenya than cancer and HIV, and it seems that despite the effort put in so far, there is so much still that is totally wrong… structurally, we are flawed. And I feel incredible guilt in having the ability of having access to such a higher level of health care in a mere 26 hours of flying time. It is very different growing up hearing that life isn’t fair, and actually seeing how unfair it is… perhaps this is naivety why should one life have that much more opportunity than another?