Being sick is deadly for women

Hamida Khatab

In Algeria, about 4000 women are repudiated by their husbands every year. The reason: they have contracted breast cancer! A third of Algerian breast cancer patients are thrown out and made precarious with no guarantee of treatment as they lose their social coverage. Additionally, they endure severe psychological upheaval.

Hamida Khatab, President of the Association El-Amel, which supports cancer patients, explains that many men refuse to accept the physical changes of their sick wives. She adds that these men consider that they cannot fulfill their conjugal duty anymore. There is a certain code of silence around the condition of women’s dependency. For instance, reproductive rights in Algeria are very limited; access to abortion is restricted to women whose lives are in danger.

Nonetheless, Algeria has been lauded for its progressive Constitution, especially with regards to women’s rights. The Constitution guarantees equal rights, mentions gender and includes a non-discriminatory clause. However, while the Constitution purports to give rights, laws and their application suggest something else. For example, there are no laws to protect women in case of domestic violence in Algeria.

The UN and the World Bank recently published data on women’s rights country by country. Reading the data critically reveals the difficulties of simply summarizing women’s rights. For example, on abortion rights, the data show that the United States guarantees access to reproductive services such as abortion, and yet we know that access is not only difficult to impossible in many states, but also prohibitively expensive.

The World Bank refers to Country as Economy, which makes the financial materiality the “raison d’être” of a country. In that logic, women become even more dependent. In Algeria, for example, women and men do not have the same inheritance rights to property, whether they are daughters, sons or spouses. Seen from the perspective of Country as Economy, the repudiation of women with diagnosed breast cancer is embedded in inequality and discrimination, the Constitution notwithstanding.

Hamida Khatab and her organization have demanded legal protection to shield women with breast cancer from being divorced, thereby maintaining access to free treatment through social coverage.

Meanwhile, in the United States, where profit runs the health system, there is no free treatment for breast cancer patients. Women depend on employer-sponsored health insurance through their spouses or their own jobs. According to a study that considered gender role in “partner abandonment” in the United States, “A married man is six times more likely to separate from or divorce his wife soon after a diagnosis of cancer or multiple sclerosis than a married woman in the same situation.”

Additionally, the out of pocket cost of treatment for insured women can easily reach $6000. For the woman who is uninsured, the numbers skyrocket. The single greatest factor of disparity in survival rates for breast cancer is whether the woman is insured or uninsured, and that is heavily determined by ethnicity, social and immigration status. This disparity is growing.

Women’s dependency is articulated around economic and cultural patriarchal polarities and carries deadly consequences for their lives. In a period of austerity and reduction of public services, women’s precariousness is racially and economically organized. The fight is broad and requires a larger sense of solidarity.

(Photo credit: El Mouajahid)

About Brigitte Marti

Brigitte Marti is an organizer researcher who has worked on reproductive rights and women's health initiatives in France and in the European Union and on women prisoners' issues in the United States. She is a member of Women Included, a new transnational feminist collective, that is part of the Women 7, a coalition that advocates for the inclusion of women's rights in the G7.