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Women's Health in Review: 2020

Authors: Arrthy Thayaparan and Alex Lukey (Blog Coordinators)

With the dawn of a new year, many are hoping to move past the tumultuous events of 2020. But who can blame them? 2020 will be memorialized in future history books as the year the world came crashing down. In particular, women felt the strain with increases in domestic violence and economic consequences disproportionate to men. For much of the past year, the news and social media painted a grim picture of the world. So it begs to question, did anything good happen in 2020? Is there hope that 2021 will be any better?

In fact, there were many triumphs in women’s rights and health in 2020. While 2020 was a year of unprecedented challenges, the year also highlighted the resilience of women across the globe. Below, we’ve highlighted several successes in 2020 worth celebrating as we begin the new year. 

Argentina legalizes abortion

After 12 hours of debate and tension, Argentina’s Senate voted and legalized abortion. Historically seen as a conservative region, this decision is a major victory for women and activists fighting for the right. It is believed that hundreds of thousands of underground abortions are performed in Argentina every year. The new abortion laws would legalize the procedure and ensure safe practices for women choosing to undergo it. The arrival of these new laws also brings hope for surrounding Latin American countries, in the desire that they will follow suit and also legalize the procedure. 

Pakistan banned virginity tests

A few weeks ago, the high court of Lahore, Pakistan outlawed the use of virginity tests on female rape survivors. Justice Ayesha Malik stated that invasive tests had no legal basis or medical requirement for them to be carried out. Additionally, the practice was deemed a humiliating offense on victims with dangerous potential to re-traumatize them. While the judgement will only apply in the state of Pubjab, it was nevertheless a historic moment for Pakistani activists and the feminist movement. 

25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which set a historic agenda for women’s rights. At this conference, over 30,000 activists and representatives from 189 countries adopted a declaration and platform to oversee the equal rights and opportunities of all women. However, other than celebrating this historic event, the anniversary is a wake-up call for countries committed to the declaration. No country has fully delivered or is close to the 2020 goals envisioned by the conference. With COVID-19 exacerbating inequalities and risks for women, it becomes even more essential to continue pushing for women’s rights and women’s health in the coming years. As Hillary Clinton so rightly phrased at this very conference 25 years ago, “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.”

Two women scientists awarded Nobel prize in chemistry

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work on gene-editing technology. Their tool, known as CRISPR-Cas9, has already had encouraging results in experimental treatments for sickle cell disease. The women mark the eighth and ninth women to ever receive this award since 1901. Despite previous history of women receiving the honour, Charpentier and Doudna make history as the first all-female winners for the Nobel’s chemistry stream. 

Vast improvements of sex inclusion in biological studies

Since the 1990s, the limitation of sex-biased studies and the need for the inclusion of females has been highlighted in research. A 2009 report by Beery and Zucker further highlighted sex-inclusive practices and policies that could mitigate biases and prompted the United States National Institutes of Health to implement a policy that required researchers to consider sex as a biological variable. The policy was intended to ensure equal representation of males and females in studies but received backlash by those who saw the change as unnecessary, time consuming, costly, and complicated. Now over ten years later, a follow-up study has found that the policy has significantly helped in increasing the number of sex-inclusive studies across most biological fields. While much work is still required, there is hope that the scientific community is aware and starting to understand the need for sex-inclusive research. 

Ground-breaking mRNA research is foundation to COVID-19 vaccine

Dr. Katalin Karikó is one of the co-developers of a method that utilizes synthetic mRNA to fight disease. Her discovery is now the foundation of the COVID-19 vaccine. But her story hasn’t been an easy one. After leaving her native Hungary in 1985, Karikó became a researcher at Philadelphia’s Temple University and later at University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. For years she attempted to gain funding for mRNA research, which was deemed too financially risky to fund. She was later demoted from her position at UPenn and underwent a hard battle with cancer, but Karikó stayed true to her ideas. Eventually, she was able to make her discovery, alongside former UPenn colleague Drew Weissman, and is finally receiving recognition for her work. 

Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine brings hope

Dr. Sarah Gilbert is a Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, who has recently made waves in the world with her team’s Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. Interim data showed that the highly effective vaccine provides 70% protection from COVID-19, but some believe that slight alterations can lead up to 90% protection. Dr. Gilbert’s team has been working to create vaccines for Ebola and MERS for several years. As such, their expertise with these viruses enabled them to design a COVID-19 vaccine soon after Chinese scientists had published the genetic structure of the virus. 

Moving forward into 2021

Without question, the events of 2020 disproportionately impacted women. The stories and events we’ve highlighted here are evidence of women’s determination to advance despite adversity.  While 2021 will undoubtedly bring many more challenges, as shown here, these writers are confident that women will continue to rise to the occasion.