Researcher in Profile

11 July 2011

Associate Professor Liz Eckermann looks back - and forward.

By Associate Professor Liz Eckermann

I have recently returned to more concentrated research (courtesy of a $221,000 AusAID research grant, a $30,000 ALAF grant and a $25,000 WHO grant) after a decade of administrative roles in the Faculty as Associate Dean (Research), Associate Head of School (Research and Research Mentoring) and Interim Head of the School of History Heritage and Society.

Although I continued my research career during this time, the opportunities for field research were curtailed. The recent move has re-invigorated my research activities and publications and rekindled my passion for active collaboration with international, national and local groups to highlight and correct health inequalities.

I started my research career at the South Australian Film Corporation in 1975 conducting the background research for films on women’s health and wellbeing, while completing my honours thesis on political cartooning at Flinders University. Like many of the baby boomer generation women, my life involved juggling full-time work, part-time study and full-time parenting given the dearth of quality child-care and after-school-care facilities in the 1970s. I have been juggling ever since with grandchildren in the mix too!

One advantage of multi-tasking is that you adjust to holding a multiplicity of passions, interests and engagements simultaneously and my research activities and publications reflect this eclectic mix. Over the past four decades my key areas of research interest and publication have spanned political sociology, medical sociology, sociology of the body, women’s health, reproductive health, gender and health, maternal health in Lao PDR, domestic violence, quality of life and indicators of health status, voluntary self-starvation in girls, health promotion and public health.

Having completed a Masters thesis in political sociology, using Gramsci’s concept of hegemony to deconstruct the 1983 National Economic Summit, my PhD moved to medical sociology examining the reasons for young women self-starving and my current research explores maternal, neonatal and child health in Lao PDR.

These research interests may appear disparate, ranging from political processes to women’s health in low income countries to voluntary self-starvation amongst young women in high income countries. The nexus between these apparent extremes lies in the social justice agenda that propels all my research and a deep commitment to women’s and girls’ empowerment. Research for me is the passionate, relentless, rigorous and engaged pursuit of understanding of the factors which lie behind what appears to be.

The many strands of my research interest come together in the variety of thesis topics of my doctoral graduates (breast cancer, gender and cancer, lay healing, the body and ageing in Japan, risk and drug use, bereavement in young adults, and adverse events from pharmaceutical drugs in older Australians) and my professional research activities, including as reviewer for fifteen journals and assistant editor of Health Promotion International.

My publications also cover a wide field including my latest book on international perspectives on gender, lifespan and quality of life which is being published by Springer. I am on the Board of Directors of the International Society for Quality of Life Studies where I have been Vice-President: Development and was made a Distinguished Research Fellow of the Society in 2006. In 2007 I won the Zonta International Outstanding Achievement Award for commitment to the advancement of women in Lao PDR. As Secretary of the Working Group on Social Indicators, of the International Sociological Association, I oversaw its transfer to the Scientific Committee on Social indicators in 2009.

I have undertaken over 20 consultancies, and commissioned research projects on health promotion and gender and health for the World Health Organization at its headquarters in Geneva and in the Western Pacific Region (WPR).

This commenced in 1994 when I wrote a series of monographs on women and health to highlight the achievements and remaining challenges for women’s health in the WPR in preparation for the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995. In terms of peer reviewed publications, I have 5 monographs, 1 edited book, 12 chapters, 22 journal articles and numerous book reviews. In addition my commissioned research with WHO and international agencies has led to 20 major reports.

I have given numerous keynote and invited addresses including keynote addresses to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York as a member of the Australian delegation, to the Healthy Cities conference on the Gold Coast, to the APEC conference on Telemedicine in Taiwan in 2009, and to the Australian Health Promotion Conference in Melbourne in 2010.

For the past five years my research interest has returned to my roots in Asia, having been brought up in Borneo in the 1950s and 1960s. My most recent research involves working with Lao researchers, the Lao Women’s Union, local committees and other stakeholders to unpack the reality ‘behind the smile’ and the resilience of ethnic minority women in the three poorest provinces of Lao PDR, Attepeu, Sekong and Salavan.

Are they really as happy as their smiles indicate, despite losing babies to pneumonia and diarrhoea and their sisters and friends to post partum haemorrhage and tetanus? Babies born in many parts of Lao are given a nickname until they reach one year: if they survive that year they are given a ‘real’ name and personhood. Pregnant women are often referred to as having one foot in the river (or grave). I

s Western medical intervention the most appropriate strategy to reverse this reality or do aspects of scientific medicine unravel their identities? Do women play a part in deciding on appropriate, affordable, accessible and acceptable intervention for themselves? These are the questions which we are working with in assisting the Lao Ministry of Health to negotiate, with communities, policies and services to help meet the MDG targets, and set the post-MDG agenda for maternal, neonatal and child health. To this end:

  • with Matthew Clarke and Anna Scopaz, I have completed the first phase of field research for the $221,000 AusAID grant (2010-2012) to evaluate the impact of a maternal health intervention on the quality of life for illiterate and innumerate communities in the three poorest provinces of southern Lao PDR.
  • This month I won an AusAID Australian Leadership Award Fellowship worth $30,000 to bring a Laotian medical researcher to Australia for 3 months mentoring in research and evaluation methods for maternal health. This will enhance the role of Lao researchers in evaluating progress on MDG 5.
  • The latest research grant with World Health Organization (Western Pacific Regional Office) in 2010 involved researching and writing a major report on progress in meeting the MDGs related to women’s health in the 37 countries of the Western Pacific Region. This was used as the background monograph, and set the women’s health agenda, for the WHO, WPRO Regional Committee Meeting in October 2010.
Liz Eckermann with villagers in Attepeu (Lao PDR) Liz Eckermann with villagers in Attepeu (Lao PDR)

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