Tej Kohli is the founder of the not-for-profit Tej Kohli Foundation whose ‘Rebuilding You’ philosophy supports the development of scientific and technological solutions to major global health challenges whilst also making interventions to rebuild people and communities around the world. Tej Kohli is also an impact investor who backs growth-stage artificial intelligence and robotics ventures through the Kohli Ventures investment vehicle.
“I shouldn’t feel scared to go to the doctor,” says a young woman, in a report by Deutsche Welle (DW) last year around women’s healthcare in India. Women in India face many obstacles when accessing healthcare; these range from logistical barriers, such as travelling to a medical facility, but also include many cultural stigmas. Women’s health is a global issue, but it is the women in developing countries who are especially at risk at not receiving the treatment that they need.
While women have traditionally been central in providing healthcare in the home — birthing babies and tending to the sick — the medical profession conversely has been traditionally dominated by men. Women were not allowed to enter tertiary education and were certainly not permitted to be doctors, although by the 1700s women could be nurses, seen as an extension of a woman’s societal role of caring and nurturing. It was only in the 1900s that women won the right to study and practice medicine in the same way as men. These first female doctors, such as Elizabeth Blackwell (in the USA) or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (in the UK), had to battle considerable resistance. These two women were instrumental in establishing specialist clinics for women and children, and women’s training hospitals.
In the 1960s the Women’s Health Movement (WHM) emerged, focussing on reproductive rights and the other female health issues. Birth also become a political area where women fought to have their husbands present for example, a revolutionary idea at the time.
While ‘traditional’ women’s health issues have come to the fore, medical research has often ignored the now 3.76bn women in the world. For example, non-smoking women are more likely to get lung cancer than non-smoking men. And yet lung cancer research frequently doesn’t break down data according to gender-specific factors, as evidenced by a recent study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and George Washington University. In fact, the study found medical research in many areas, including cardiovascular disease (which kills more women than men), often includes few women subjects, or else doesn’t report results by gender.
In developing countries, women have less access to healthcare. A recent report by BMJ found that there was extensive gender discrimination in healthcare access for women in India. The study estimated that nearly twice as many hospital visits were made by men and boys as were made by women and girls.
Ranjana Kumari, a women’s rights activist and director of the Centre for Social Research in New Delhi, commented, “The mental conditioning of Indian society has led to women having a very high threshold of patience and silence. Health of a woman is not a priority in our country. No one wants to invest in women’s health. It works both ways because most of the time women also keep silent about their health issues,” she told DW. Adding that their upbringing often made them shy if they were young, or their low self-esteem came in the way of demanding access to a doctor.
While women in developing countries may have access to support structures that allow them to prioritise their healthcare, in developing countries where women are expected to tend to children, maintain a household, and care for others, often their own health is side-lined. India is sadly a good example of where traditional gender and class roles still exist and is therefore an important area for philanthropists such as myself to support.
Those suffering with blindness, and especially in the case of women, are often confined to their homes and this is part of the reason why I was a key part of the Tej Kohli Cornea Institute at the LV Prasad Eye Institute, a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre. It is a leading institution for preventative medicine and corneal transplants and has given free transplants and cures to many thousands of the poorest people on the planet who were living with blindness or severe visual impairment; many of those women.
Under my stewardship, the Tej Kohli Foundation further advanced its mission to end needless corneal blindness worldwide by initiating the Tej Kohli Cornea Program at Massachusetts Eye And Ear in Boston, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, with an initial $2m donation to accelerate innovative and collaborative research to achieve unprecedented breakthroughs in corneal disease.
Going forward, I see women’s healthcare in developing communities a key part of my work in helping others through my philanthropic initiatives. While those in developing nations continue to face more complex questions around women’s health, it’s important to make sure that the large number of women in developing countries need basic support that affords them the opportunity to step out into the world with their health and their confidence.