Women's bodies must not be seen as an inconvenience
Women's Health and Inequalities Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price calls on both the NHS and wider society to do more to educate women about what's normal when it comes to their health and dispel ongoing myths to encourage an open dialogue between both men and women.
This International Women’s Day, the focus is on forging a more gender-balanced world.
We all know that in many areas, women’s issues continue to go unheard and this is particularly true when it comes to healthcare.
In my time as Minister responsible for women’s health, I have met many Parliamentarians, campaign groups, and system partners to discuss a range of women’s health issues.
I have also met many patients with compelling stories to tell. It’s clear from things I have seen and heard that too often, women are receiving poor care in ways that can be profoundly disempowering and upsetting. Women’s bodies must not be seen as an inconvenience. In too many cases, women’s symptoms and concerns are not being taken seriously.
But what is the cause of this?
One theme which persists is education. Although we are moving away from a medical profession that at one time was overwhelmingly male, there is still so much more to do.
Many of the problems we see today are the legacy of a culture where women’s problems were way down the agenda – and we still have work to do to confront the consequences of that.
A lot of the time, many common complaints are taboo and women just simply don’t know whether the symptoms they’re experiencing are normal or not. If they’re not aware of when they should seek medical help, this leads to clinical underrepresentation of female issues and a general lack of awareness that so many women are suffering.
Education needs to be implemented from top to bottom.
Both girls and boys need to learn about menstrual health from a young age. One familiar anecdote many of us will recognise from our school days is of the girls being ushered away to a separate classroom to be taught about periods, leaving the boys behind, confused and ultimately uneducated.
This segregation and isolation simply perpetuate certain myths around such a commonplace subject, for example, that it is something to be ashamed of and not spoken about.
I’m delighted that the Department for Education has recently announced that menstrual health will be included in the school curriculum, but as always that doesn’t signal the end of this issue.
Clinicians need to educate themselves too to ensure they’re not turning away women in pain, purely because they don’t think anything is wrong with them.
Stigma is clearly another theme that pervades women’s health.
It is dangerous for a number of reasons. It means women are ashamed of normal bodily changes, like periods or the menopause. That is not a safe state of mind. Stigma traps us into thinking that there are some conversations that are just too difficult to have.
The final theme is consent.
Championing consent allows women to understand their conditions and how they can self-manage them, it leads to better outcomes and patient satisfaction, and it means medical professionals and the health system are not exposed to unnecessary risk.
This was the impetus behind myself and Professor Lesley Regan, the President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recently launching a Women’s Health Taskforce.
Our aim is to improve women’s health by empowering women with the confidence and the information they need to improve their own healthcare. We want organisations across the health system to think about what they can do for women’s health. We will challenge the system as our health services need to be more responsive to our needs.
We want to lead a debate on issues facing women’s health and in doing so, break down taboos and stigma.
Collective action and shared ownership for driving gender parity are what makes International Women’s Day successful.
To make a success of our ambition when it comes to women’s health - to break down the pervasive and damaging taboos that still exist - we need to adopt the same approach and all work together, men and women.
Jackie Doyle-Price is Conservative MP for Thurrock and Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Mental Health, Inequalities and Suicide Prevention.
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