Professor Dame Lesley Regan
Chair, Wellbeing of Women
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, women were already facing barriers to accessing healthcare due to taboo and stigma. As a society we need to address these challenges.
Recent headlines have been worrying, but hardly surprising. The pandemic has disproportionately affected women who are struggling to access basic health services such as contraception, fertility treatment, antenatal care and cervical cancer screening. This is resulting in thousands of unplanned pregnancies and vital gynaecological appointments being missed. However, this issue has been around long before the coronavirus pandemic.
Making women’s health a priority
From heavy bleeding to birth complications, women feel unable to talk about common reproductive and gynaecological issues at home or work for fear of being stigmatised. Almost half (46%) who have given birth and experienced serious side effects – such as vaginal tearing and haemorrhoids – haven’t spoken to anyone about them.
It is fantastic that menopause was added to the school curriculum in England last year, for example, but girls must be taught about health throughout their whole lifespan.
As a society, we don’t talk enough about these issues, so we don’t prioritise understanding and treating them. Therefore, women struggle to access information about intimate health problems and where to seek help – and when they do seek help, frequently meet a dead end.
Women continue to suffer from painful, heavy periods, undiagnosed endometriosis (which takes an average of eight years to diagnose), pregnancy complications and debilitating menopause symptoms because many healthcare professionals lack the specialist knowledge and training to treat them.
Helping women to understand their bodies
One way to tackle this is by educating women about their own bodies, so that they can advocate for their own healthcare needs. It is fantastic that menopause was added to the school curriculum in England last year, for example, but girls must be taught about health throughout their whole lifespan.
Another way is by boosting understanding in healthcare by training the next generation of women’s healthcare specialists, investing in women’s health research and changing how we care for women. Establishing one stop women’s health clinics would be a cost-effective way of providing care – such as contraception and cervical cancer screening – at a single visit.
Finally, we can all make a positive contribution to women’s health by talking openly about periods, sex, contraception and the menopause. They are not embarrassing, they are facts of life, and we owe it to all girls and women to shed a light on them.