National Network on Environments and Women's Health

National Network on Environments and Women's Health

What Happened

As part of the 2012 Budget, the Women’s Health Contribution Program (“the Contribution Program”) was eliminated. The Contribution Program was originally created to establish “policy-based non-clinical research on women's health and to provide action-oriented policy advice reflecting community as well as academic concerns.” It was the principal source of funding for six women’s health organizations that advanced gender equality in the area of women’s health, including the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health.

The Network stopped receiving federal funds as of April 2013. Proponents have spoken out against the elimination of the Contribution Program. They point out that this program supported research that applied a gendered lens to produce important policy recommendations to better the lives and health of women. Critics of the cuts also claim that this development is further proof of the government’s dismissive attitude towards evidence-based policy work in general, and specifically in the case of the Network, towards information on issues related to women’s health.

The elimination of the Contribution Program also affected: the Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes, the Canadian Women’s Health Network, the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health, and the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence. While the Network, the Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes, the British Columbia Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health and the Canadian Women’s Health Network remained open through 2013 in hopes of finding other sources of funding, the Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health and the Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence have closed their operations completely. 


The National Network on Environments and Women’s Health describes its mission as “producing knowledge on the social, economic and physical environments that affect women’s health in order to facilitate policy change that will improve the lives of all Canadian women.” It explains its approach to research as “drawing upon a range of expertise through academic research associates, community partners, service providers and women’s groups.” The Network encourages “the use of a gender and diversity framework in the analysis of health research, policy development and education.”

The Network’s research is relevant to public debate and health policy development. Its research explores the social determinants of health and examines the gendered effects of social and environmental factors, such as workplace chemical exposure, water quality and the privatization of water, the structure and governance of cities, and access to care and services for rural and Aboriginal communities.

The Network’s proponents argue that its groundbreaking research on the links between the environment and health are relevant to all women. “Women are exposed to more chemicals, because we use more personal-care products and ... women are often making these decisions about what chemicals they are exposing themselves and their families to,” explained Projects Manager Jyoti Phartiyal. Recent research supported by the Network also pointed to the specific occupational health risks faced by women, including higher risks of breast cancer and reproductive abnormalities from exposure to workplace chemicals. The Network partnered with the Canadian Auto Workers Union to disseminate this research.

The Network has also aimed to produce research relevant to particularly vulnerable women.  Its Fact Sheets provide accessible health information on issues such as breastfeeding for mothers who were sexually abused, safety and well-being for sex workers, and risky exposures for women working in the auto industry.

Dr. Dayna Nadine Scott, the Network’s Executive Director, expressed concern that the cuts “undermine our ability to be able to offer important critique about the policy direction the government might be heading in.”  Dr. Scott also noted the significant equity implications of the elimination of the Contribution Program: “These cuts are in direct contradiction to the pledges regarding gender equality that Canada has made both in international commitments and to Canadians. Women are being hit particularly hard with these cuts, and, because the research being eliminated generated proactive, preventative strategies for health promotion, these cuts will cost everyone in the long term. The end of this work will be most strongly felt by the disadvantaged and the disempowered.”

Responding to questions on the cuts, Steve Outhouse, spokesperson for then Minister of Health Leona Aglukkaq told the Star in April 2012 that “... when we’re in a process of deficit reduction we’re always looking at how do we achieve that mandate as efficiently and effectively as possible.” He noted that the priority has shifted to delivering frontline services rather than conducting research.

The groups affected by the cuts have been told to apply to the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) for new sources of funding. However, it is not clear that these funds will be directed towards research aimed at advising the government on policy, which was a key part of the affected groups’ mandates, claims Anne Rochon Ford, Executive Director of the Canadian Women’s Health Network. She declared, “it’s been made very clear to us that they don’t want our policy advice.”

The Network remains open and its work on the gendered implications of the privatization of water continues with existing, albeit very limited, funding. While the Network will continue to apply for further support for new projects, the elimination of the Contribution Program has significantly limited its research capacity. It has forced the Network to adopt a limited-term and project-specific approach to its research. The long-term status of the Network and its work remains in question.

 

Relevant Dates:

  • April 2012: The 2012 Budget includes cuts to Health Canada, resulting in the elimination of the Women’s Health Contribution Program.
  • October 2012: The six organizations affected by the cuts meet in Montreal to discuss their future and the impact of defunding research on women’s health.
  • April 2013: The 2012 Budget cuts come into effect and the Network loses its government funding. It continues to seek funds in order to remain open. Two of the centres funded by the Contribution Program are forced to close their doors.

Role or Position

The National Network on Environments and Women’s Health (the “Network”), founded in 1996, is a research center focused on the “impact of different environments on the health of women.” Its goal is to influence Canadian policy. The Network was originally established as one of four Centres of Excellence for Women’s Health, affiliated with York University. Research areas include the effects of chemical exposure, water quality, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare policies on women’s health. The Network, and its affiliate working groups, Women and Health Protection and Women and Health Care Reform, have produced a wide range of critical and evidence-based factsheets and publications examining the social, economic and physical environments that effect women’s health. 

Implications and Consequences

  • Democratic Participation: The goal of the Network is the production of non-clinical interdisciplinary research aimed at shaping public policies related to women’s health. The Contribution Program allowed it to represent women’s interests to government bodies setting policies on pollutants, water, pharmaceuticals, environmental issues and health care reform. The cuts will significantly reduce the Network’s research and education capacity and limit opportunities for Canadians, and all levels of government, to hear an important and essential perspective on issues related to women’s health.
  • Knowledge Production: While the government indicated that funding through the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) was available for affected groups, it is not clear that CIHR funding will provide comparable support for the independent, critical and non-clinical policy research and advice that was once supported by the Contribution Program, including the type of research produced by Network. As such, the result of these cuts is to significantly limit the capacity of the Network to generate research and knowledge critical of federal government policies.
  • Equality: Cutting funding for the Network, whose mandate is to produce knowledge that will improve the health status of Canadian women, undermines the ability of women to protect their rights to health and environmental protection, and to advocate on key environmental health issues. Since marginalized women are at a greater risk of suffering from environmental health-related issues, these cuts disproportionately impact marginalized women.

 

Date published: 3 February 2014.

Logo from the National Network on Environments and Women's Health.