Across international boundaries and vastly different cultures, women face the threat of sexual violence and issues of gender equality and empowerment. Meghan Fitzgerald has seen it firsthand. More importantly, she is doing something about it.
On campus, Fitzgerald is a sexual violence prevention graduate assistant for Student Health Services (SHS). And through her master’s degree and current Ph.D. program in health policy, she’s worked with women in Jordan for the United Nations.
Recent nationwide initiatives like It’s On Us have highlighted the need for sexual violence education and prevention on college campuses. Fitzgerald and her colleagues in SHS are already seeing results as they increase awareness and expand programming at Oregon State.
Last spring, for example, about 500 students attended the annual Take Back the Night event, an international rally and march that aims to end all forms of sexual violence. In past years, only 50 or so straggling students attended.
Fitzgerald expects the 2016 event next April to be even bigger. She’s looking forward to leveraging the momentum from last year and “designing a curriculum that will have sustainable, long-lasting effects.”
As rewarding as her work on campus has been, Fitzgerald’s passion for women’s health issues is global. It was sparked by the disparity between the wealthy and poor she saw while working and traveling in Asia after earning her undergraduate degree from St. Michael’s College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont.
“I understand that these divisions exist everywhere, but the people who seemed to suffer most from this sort of injustice were women,” Fitzgerald says. “As a privileged white woman growing up in the U.S., I felt I had a responsibility to use my privilege to do something to lessen the plight of other women in the world.”
That sense of responsibility brought Fitzgerald to Oregon State, where she earned a master’s degree from the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2014. As part of that program, she had to complete an internship, and she knew it had to be abroad.
“If I stayed domestic for this internship, I would be learning about these women instead of learning from them,” she says.
Fitzgerald spent two months in Jordan interning with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). She got to know women living in the refugee camps while helping with gender-based violence education, gender empowerment and economic skill-building programs.
But what really excited her was running focus groups with women in the camps.
“I asked questions to assess the women’s perception of the programs to meet the requirements of my internship, but what I really wanted to know was their perceptions and ideas of violence against women, their definition of women’s empowerment,” she says.
Fitzgerald found that the Palestinian women she interviewed perceived many barriers to empowerment in their culture, and they often didn’t report instances of domestic violence.
The experience inspired Fitzgerald to continue her studies. She just completed her first year in the Health Policy Ph.D. program.
For her dissertation, Fitzgerald wants to return to Jordan and further explore the intersection of gender equality, violence against women and reproductive health services. She will carry out focus group discussions with Jordanian women in the northern town of Irbid to better understand their perceptions of gender equity.
Fitzgerald also plans to collect quantitative data to determine if there is a relationship between women’s perceptions of gender equity and their knowledge and use of reproductive health services. She says such research could provide proof points for improving health policies in Jordan to promote reproductive health education in schools and make services more accessible. Perhaps more importantly, this research will give voice to a marginalized population, a voice that has been left out of academic discussions on gender empowerment and development.
Her goal in Jordan as well as at home is to work toward changing policies that hinder women’s empowerment and serve as barriers to a healthy life and community.
“I think sometimes people at the policy level don’t think of empowerment and social justice as health concerns,” Fitzgerald says. “They see those issues as separate, but research and experience show that cultural beliefs and attitudes dictate the health of a community.”
Fitzgerald is ready to face these issues, in part thanks to her education at Oregon State.
“I’m so glad I landed here at OSU at this time in my life,” Fitzgerald says. “I can’t think of a greater privilege than being able to commit my days to shaping the world into something a little more humane, a little more just and a lot more meaningful.”