Black women and public health in the UK: organisation and activism

Douglas, Jenny (2018). Black women and public health in the UK: organisation and activism. In: Caribbean women (post) diaspora: African Caribbean interconnections, 12-13 Jul 2018, London South Bank University.



This paper explores the contribution of black women nurses in the UK to public health, both as activists for change and as organisers of change. Academic literature on these health workers has focused on their experiences of discrimination (Doyal, 1995, Davis, 2007) rather than the substantial contribution they have made to service development. The paper looks at organisations to advance the public’s health, in particular those developed by black women in areas such as mental health, reproductive health, sickle cell and thalassaemia disorders. Using case studies, it also explores the development of women’s groups to challenge racism and ethnocentrism in health.

The paper documents the migration of African-Caribbean women to the UK in the 1950s (the Windrush generation) and their employment in the newly established NHS. Employed in public health work as nurses, health visitors, midwives and community health workers, the majority of these women experienced racism and discrimination which impacted on their ability to progress into senior managers roles in the NHS (Beishon et al, 1995). Despite this, some black women achieved senior positions in the Department of health becoming instrumental in establishing initiatives such as the Mary Seacole Awards – to encourage scholarship and research amongst black nurses and the Breakthrough Trust enabling leadership development. However in their private lives many African-Caribbean women made a substantial contribution to public health. Whilst working and enabling change within the NHS, black nurses were active in their local communities and churches, establishing and contributing to a range of voluntary organisations. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, black women were involved in campaigning for change, setting up black women’s groups to challenge inappropriate, racist and ethnocentric practices within the NHS – for example Birmingham Black Health Workers, Brixton Black Women’s Collective and the Organisation of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD). However, the activism of these black women has remained ignored and unacknowledged except for the work of Bryan, Dadzie and Scafe (1995) and Sudbury (1998).

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