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Middle Eastern Feminist Addresses Sexual Reproductive Care

In addition to a positive HPV diagnosis in Beirut, Lebanon, Doreen Toutikian received criticism and judgment from her doctor for being unwed and sexually active. Toutikian knew she wasn’t the only women going through health experiences like this.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) shares that about 50% of Arab youth (which includes parts of the Middle East) lack knowledge about STIs and issues related to sexual health remain taboo to speak about. Cultural and societal norms restricting open discussions about sexual health can also lead to limited access to information and services.

With this, Toutikian has emerged with a solution to drive sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the Middle East through her organization, omgyno. With a focus on human-centered design while combatting the stigma of feminine care, she is reshaping the landscape of health care delivery and access.

Omgyno is a combination of a home testing kit and telehealth. Through Hivos, a funder, the service is provided free of charge to users in Lebanon. 

Toutikian is surprised with the Health Access Prize, funded by Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures.

Toutikian's journey took a significant turn with her involvement in MIT Solve, providing her with a platform to amplify her project's global impact. Supported by funding from Solve, Vodafone, and the Johnson & Johnson Impact Ventures, a fund within Johnson & Johnson Foundation, omgyno launched its 2.0 version is March 2023 in Lebanon.

Central to omgyno's success is its emphasis on user-centric design and inclusivity. Toutikian eagerly seeks feedback on her work and actively seeks out blind spots her team may overlook. From crafting tactile home test kits for the visually impaired to including multilingual instructions, Toutikian is committed to making omgyno accessible to all. 

In addition to technological advancements, Toutikian recognizes the importance of collaboration in driving omgyno's mission forward. Through partnerships with organizations like We Lead, funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, omgyno is able to engage directly with beneficiaries, like migrant women and women with disabilities, and address their unique health care needs.

Omgyno is run by six women in Lebanon deeply familiar with SRHR challenges in the region. However, despite their familiarity with these issues, they have faced rejections for funding opportunities from judges who question the cultural sensitivity of their work.

“I’m finding within this world of grants and NGOs, a lot of people ‘up there’ think they know what’s best for people ‘down here’ and what we need, but that’s not necessarily the case,” says Toutikian. Her feelings echo 2023 Solver Aral Surmeli who also is working to deploy health services in the Middle East and works to combat the idea that people in places of power are “angels coming from Heaven to help people.

Toutikian has a desire for face-to-face conversations with NGOs and governing bodies. “I want them to see women like us––young feminists that are able to handle these conversations more than they give us credit for. I want them to see the passion, excitement, and determination. That often gets lost in application forms.” 

Omgyno has processed over 1,000 home tests in Lebanon. “We’re showing that we can be an evidence-based organization,” says Toutikian. In omgyno’s first report, it was found that 20% of people who tested positive for high-risk HPV never tested before using omgyno and 73% of the positive cases were infected with more than one high-risk HPV strain. The report also addresses the myriad of barriers women in the Middle East experience when seeking sexual and reproductive health care, which Toutikian addressed during an event parallel to the Commission on the Status of Women.

Toutikian (right) took part in the FEMNET panel on SRHR financing which was parallel to the Commission on the Status of Women 68.

Although it’s clear more SRHR services could benefit women in Lebanon, political instability has led to women’s health care being deprioritized. “Politics, the economy, and health care are so interlinked. There is a huge brain drain. Because of the economic crisis, most of the doctors are leaving the country.” Toutikian explains. It was already difficult for omgyno to recruit physicians due to the progressive nature of the work.

“This is why we believe the only way to push forward is through these types of grassroots initiatives. We’re going to make change on our own whether we do it legally or illegally.”

User feedback and results are what keeps Toutikian motivated during challenging times. “It gives me so much conviction in this idea.”

To date, omgyno has impacted over 1,700 lives and catalyzed over 150 telehealth consultations. Toutikian is passionate about launching in Egypt and Jordan once her team expands and secures more partnerships and funding. “Our model does not work on its own. It really is based on community partnerships.”

If you’re eager to champion health equity leaders like Toutikian, get involved with Solve today.


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