Intended for healthcare professionals


Marijke Velzeboer

BMJ 2014; 349 doi: (Published 05 November 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;349:g6525
  1. Sophie Arie
  1. 1London
  1. sophiearie{at}

Public health expert who used her charisma to change attitudes to women’s health

In the 1970s Marijke Velzeboer made the unusual choice for an expat in war torn Guatemala to give birth in a local state run hospital, receiving the same care as any Guatemalan woman would do. The decision was typical of this tall, blonde, and elegant woman, whose ability to relate to the poorest peasants in Latin America while also charming politicians and UN bureaucrats allowed her to change attitudes to women and women’s health in a notoriously macho part of the world.

As a gender expert rising through the ranks of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), a regional branch of the World Health Organization, between 1998 and 2012, Velzeboer used her personality as much as her professional skills systematically to coax and cajole a largely resistant cohort of male colleagues, one by one, into supporting her cause.

“If words matter; if concepts evolve, gel, and take root over time; Marijke surely led the charge in changing the dialogue [at PAHO] about women’s place in society,” said her PAHO colleagues in a jointly written obituary.

“We are an organisation of Latin American, generally white, men with women in helping positions,” said Genevieve Grabman, a PAHO colleague who worked for …

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