Can Art Raise Awareness of Women’s Health Issues? This Foundation Director Thinks So
Katharina Reimer has always dreamed of making a change. Her dream has brought her from Berlin to various cities in the Middle East and then to Hong Kong in 2004. “I’ve approached [this dream] one step at a time. I learned that just because you experienced something that shouldn't stop you from speaking out. But you have to do it in a certain way.”
In Reimer’s case, as the executive director of the Karen Leung Foundation (KLF), she finds ways to speak out and raise awareness about gynaecological cancer in Hong Kong. It’s no small feat as women’s health issues and sexuality can still be sensitive topics. But for her, it’s her way towards changing the world for the better.
“It wasn’t a lunch or dinner conversation ever,” she says, describing the awkwardness she has faced at times when asked about the work of the foundation. To raise awareness of gynaecological cancer, Reimer believes it’s important to be open about women’s health and bodies more generally. From here, the ExtraOrdinary Exhibition was born.
“[Art] can communicate something which is universal, [it] cuts through gender biases, through ethnicities, through demographics,” says Reimer.
The ExtraOrdinary Exhibition is on view at various spaces in Hong Kong, including Soho House until the end of October and The Hari through January 3, 2022. Reimer hopes it will bring the foundation’s message to a wider audience and make viewers reflect on their own relationship with their health and bodies.
There are more than 40 participating artists, including Gen.T honouree Claudia Chanhoi, who explores female sexuality with humour and sarcasm through her colourful cartoon-based images. One of her works on display, My Background, is based on her own experience growing up in a Hong Kong Chinese Catholic family where she was taught that female sexuality is passive and vulnerable.
Another participating artist is Karen Chan—also known by her artist name, chankalun—the creative director of art-design studios, CeeKayEllo and HKCrafts and the only female neon artist in Hong Kong’s male-dominant neon industry. Her artwork, Every Body is a Beach Body celebrates all kinds of bodies despite the shape and skin colour as well as illustrates self-love and confidence in your own body.
In addition to artworks on display, KLF also held self-care workshops to encourage women and their loved ones to prioritise their health. A silent auction was also held last year which raised over HK$300,000 to support KLF’s health programmes.
The exhibition is just the latest example of Reimer’s dedication to normalising and advocating for women’s health. Since becoming the director of the Karen Leung Foundation in 2017, she has done plenty in the areas of awareness and prevention for gynaecological cancer. “We're small in terms of headcount but definitely a lot in terms of impact.”
Your body is your vehicle to do all those things in life—to aspire to be a successful woman, to make a change in society in your life, to love— Katharina Reimer
One of her biggest feats is advocating to make HPV vaccination available in Hong Kong. HPV (human papillomavirus) is the most common sexually transmitted disease and a vaccine helps prevent HPV-related cancers of diseases including gynaecological cancer.
“Every girl would get that jab at school in the UK, in the US, in Australia. But in Hong Kong? No. So we did that for four years and vaccinated over 3,000 girls in over 28 schools.”
She and her team also worked on petitioning for the HPV vaccination programme for two years on an advocacy level and their hard work paid off. “Now, the HPV programme has become a universal vaccine that can be administered to all girls in a private or public school. It's just up to the schools and parents to opt-in,” says Reimer.
Since the vaccine is not mandatory, many are still not opting in due to stigmas and a lack of understanding about women's health and sexuality in Hong Kong. This brings Reimer back to her “third baby”—the ExtraOrdinary Exhibition.
The exhibition is in its second year in 2021 and builds on promising numbers—more than 7,400 in-person attendees—from 2020. Their survey last year also highlighted encouraging results with more than 74 per cent of event attendees experiencing strong shifts in their awareness towards women’s health issues.
Still for Reimer, there is plenty more progress to be made. “In Hong Kong, the conversations about your body is very limited amongst parents and kids even in schools.” She’s aiming to go back to the basics—empowering yourself enough to talk about these issues in the open and to make it normal to look after yourself. “Your body is your vehicle to do all those things in life—to aspire to be a successful woman, to make a change in society in your life, to love. Without your body, you’d be nothing so I think we need to look back to that.”
Amidst the tough path ahead, she’s hopeful. “Most of the charities in Hong Kong are women-led. This shows that we’re there. Collectively, we can all make an impact.” As for what’s next for KLF, Reimer’s sights are still set on making the ExtraOrdinary project bigger. “We have broadened the story into something that people can relate to regardless of gender,” she says. “Gynaecological cancer is niche but women’s health is something everyone can think about.”
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