On Tuesday 15 October 2019 the Women Leaders in Conflict and Health Initiative held its inaugural lecture at King’s College London, at the Department of War Studies. We were privileged to have this lecture delivered by one of the most inspiring and courageous leaders in health and conflict; Professor Rita Giacaman from the Institute of Community and Public Health (ICPH) at Birzeit University in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Professor Giacaman took us on a journey of her life and career path through captivating photography and engaging anecdotes, that were at times humorous yet painfully harrowing. Rita has lived through devastating times in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, yet her passion and determination to seek justice and ultimately peace for the Palestinian people has aided her in overcoming numerous challenges. While this was Rita’s story, she emphasised the importance of sharing it to become our story: a shared story enables people to create understanding and awareness, produce knowledge, create sustainable partnerships, institutions, and above all, friendships. It is this shared story that enables Palestinians to exist in a reign of chaos.
Growing up in the Jordan administered West Bank, Rita had no comprehension of what a refugee was. However, in 1967, when Palestine was occupied by Israel, Rita became quickly familiar with the term and learnt first-hand what it meant to become a refugee. Soon thereafter, Rita and her family moved to the United States as refugees. Rita describes this as the luckiest time of her life – she learnt what a refugee was and understood the realities of poverty and what it does to people. Rita saw the real struggles of the underprivileged and poor in the US where she studied and volunteered in detox clinics, among other places. As Rita’s hippy phase came to a culmination and she graduated from the University of California San Francisco Medical Centre, she returned to Palestine. After Rita’s first and only ever job interview, she started working at Birzeit University, where in 1978 she was one of the founding members of the Institute of Community and Public Health (ICPH). Rita remembers these early days fondly; everyone was full of hope and optimism. Through social action and solidarity, Rita and many of her friends were involved in creating institutions and organisations from the ground up to meet the immense needs of Palestinians. Women and men led these projects – there was no gender discrimination, no unequal pay. Everyone was working together, creating strong and resilient institutions and networks that would enable continuity to support an often conflict-affected environment. During this time, Rita spent time with a group of social scientists, eating together, talking together and learning together. Rita travelled with the group to an extremely deprived village in the Jordan Valley where they were assessing the impacts of measures implemented to improve agriculture production. The team asked Rita to research health outcomes within the community. This experience was transformative for Rita, forcing her to look beyond the microscope. Furthermore, Rita realised the ICPH needed a broad range of experts, not just doctors, nurses and pharmacists. Rita’s own research has spanned a wide variety of areas – from biomedicine, developing instruments to measure quality of life, deprivation and suffering in conflict ecosystems, while also merging elements of social science and philosophy into her work.
So how, in the face of significant challenges, does Rita rise to overcome the barriers that women leaders face in the conflict and health domain? Women have an astounding capacity to endure and resist. Rita has seen women defy soldiers, go to school at gun point, and literally create new paths or roads when physical barriers are put in their way. Rita noted that as a woman it is important to have confidence in yourself and to be determined, resilient and courageous – characteristics that Rita herself displays exceptionally well. Supportive work environments are particularly important for women working in conflict and health. At Birzeit University, Rita is surrounded by an extremely supportive team that is also mother and baby friendly – solidarity is vital in a world controlled by military check points. Rita also firmly believes that there is no success as individuals and that we must work together to accomplish great things; beyond borders, academic disciplines, backgrounds, race and gender. In the conflict and health domain, we are all driven by the same cause: addressing injustices. Rita believes that academia is a powerful tool through which we can together address issues of injustice in pursuit of peace and bring the voices of excluded and violated people to the rest of the world.
This week, Rita’s considerable achievements were recognised at King’s College London, where she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science. Congratulations, Professor Giacaman, it is a privilege and a pleasure to know you and work with you.