Taking stock of women’s health

Nicole Bezuidenhout, March 2022

Women have battled and continue to battle for equality. Apart from societal, educational, and occupational opportunities, women also deserve the right to vital, quality, and specialised healthcare. Though efforts to bring women’s health to the forefront have led to many advances in the field, the picture is by no means perfect – especially for women in low and middle income countries (LMICs). A closer look at women’s health – past, present, and future –  aims to shed light on unique challenges, celebrate progress, and hopefully inspire action. 

Understanding the gender health gap

 

Women tend to outlive men. This is in fact the case in all countries around the world, with an average of 4-8 years difference in life expectancy between the two sexes (1). But to what do we owe this difference in lifespan? This question has troubled researchers for many years, and though we still don’t know everything there is to know, it’s clear that social, environmental, behavioural,  as well as biological (e.g. genetic or hormonal) differences are major influencers of health risk, health-seeking behaviour, health outcomes, and responses from health systems (23). A difference in lifespan can therefore be attributed to, for example, advances in obstetrics or maternal healthcare or poorer health-seeking behaviour in men. Simply put, the more scientists and medical professionals understand about the unique challenges women face, the better chance there is of innovating health solutions and tailoring healthcare to women’s specific needs. 

Apart from requiring specialised healthcare for conditions related to sexual and reproductive health (4), women also have a greater predisposition to several non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, some cancers, and depression (56). And may experience symptoms or health conditions differently (78) or respond differently to treatments (910). It’s also important to emphasise the struggle some women face with gaining access to healthcare because of deeply rooted societal issues, namely sexual and gender based violence and poverty – issues that disproportionately affect women living in LMICs and play an important role in a woman’s physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing (2). 

The most common symptoms for a heart attack may differ between men and women.

To put women in a position where equal opportunity to the best health outcomes is possible, health innovations, in addition to a better understanding of women’s health, are imperative. In this regard, we actually have a lot to show for the last 100 years. Notably, the development of medicinal products for maternal and sexual health –  think mammograms, pap smears, and birth control –  as well as improved inclusivity in medical research and coverage of healthcare costs (at least in some countries) (11). Still, lots more can be done to close the gender health gap and people and organisations around the world have risen to the challenge! 

Closing the gender health gap

 

Let’s start with Danish-born founder of Clue, Ida Tin, who came up with the idea for an app that can track menstrual periods and ovulation, giving women the opportunity to easily collect information about their menstrual cycle and health. Information that is central to understanding and treating several women’s health conditions, including polycystic ovary syndrome and endometriosis. Others have focused their efforts on aiding the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cervical (12) as well as breast (13) cancer – two of the most prevalent cancers affecting women worldwide (14). 

In 2018, Kenya became the first country to remove tampon tax and distribute free sanitary pads in schools. Another leader in the fight against period poverty is Scotland. Becoming the first country to provide free tampons and sanitary pads to anyone who needs them in 2020 (15). Thankfully, many other countries, including Zambia and Botswana, are also recognising the importance of supporting women’s health by lifting some of the financial burden and stigma associated with menstruation, giving women and girls the opportunity to experience life more freely, use their money for other basic needs, and even attend school (15).  

 

WA-WA Kenya supports women making reusable menstrual pads in Lake Victoria, Kenya. Photo by WA WA Kenya. Read more about period poverty and WA-WA Kenya here.

On to visual aids in healthcare. Elsevier, global leader in research publishing and information analytics, announced the launch of their 3D full female model – the most advanced model of its kind – earlier this year. The model provides an incredible amount of detail specific to female anatomy, giving educators the ability to present male and female anatomies equally, allowing future medical professionals to better understand and address gender disparities in medicine (16). On a similar note, Nigerian medical illustrator and aspiring neurosurgeon Chidiebere Ibe’s illustrations have taken the internet by storm. In particular, his depiction of a pregnant Black woman with a baby in utero had many (including myself) realising it was the first time they had seen a photo of Black women shown in this way (17). In a statement made on his GoFundMe page, Chidiebere emphasised the importance of adequate representation in medicine, adding that “…a lack of diversity has important implications for medical trainees and their future patients because many conditions and signs look different based on a patient’s skin colour…” (18). On his Instagram page (@ebereillustrate), you can find many more medical illustrations of Black women, including representations of the female lymphatic system in the breast and symptoms of ovarian cancer. 

 

Historically, women have been marginalised in medical research. Left out of clinical trials, critical to testing the safety and efficacy of new medicinal products. Though women’s participation in clinical trials has been on the rise since the early 1990s, it’s hard to ignore the effect their exclusion from this critical process in medicines development has had on women’s health. This article from Well and Good provides a great overview of this issue. For decades expecting and breastfeeding mothers have been considered vulnerable patient groups and have as such been excluded from the medicine-testing process. This has resulted in a lack of safety information for many medicines prescribed during pregnancy and breastfeeding, making treatment choices even tougher for women. To highlight an innovative project supporting the safety of medicines used by pregnant and breastfeeding women, let’s look at the European project ConcePTION. It aims to provide evidence-based information regarding the effects of medicines used during pregnancy and breastfeeding to women as well as healthcare professionals. By finding new ways to study medicines safety and efficacy and collect safety information from these patient groups, pregnant and breastfeeding women will have the opportunity to make informed decisions about their treatment. 

 

It’s good to know that women’s health is a top priority for many social and public health organisations around the world. The WHO and United Nations have, for example, been at the forefront of women’s rights and health, driving global initiatives and providing recommendations and resources to support women (192021). Read more about the WHO’s 6 priorities for women and health, including the Global Strategy to Accelerate the Elimination of Cervical Cancer. According to the WHO, cervical cancer could be the first cancer ever to be eliminated, if 90% of girls are vaccinated, 70% of women are screened, and 90% of women with cervical disease get the treatment they need. With their global strategy and the “energy, passion, and momentum of communities, partners, and individuals working towards catalysing change” we can achieve a world free from cervical cancer. 

On this subject, in 2021, the social organisation Together Women Can embarked on a campaign to help prevent cervical cancer in rural Kenya. They raised money to fund the screening of 3000 women and girls. And this Spring (or Autumn depending on where you live) they plan to distribute free sanitary products and panties as well as information leaflets. Contributions from donors also go towards providing training for cervical cancer screening to nurses, comprehensive health insurance, and health workshops. Follow them on social media for updates. 

From Lightup Impact’s own community of social change makers: The Rwandan based Impanuro Girls Initiative is dedicated to improving the lives of women and girls through education, counselling, capacity building, and advocacy, ensuring a healthy and empowered lifestyle. Similarly, The Daughters of Kenya is uplifting women in their community, giving them the tools they need to prioritise their health and well-being. See their webpages to learn how you can get involved and help make a difference. 

 

It’s inspiring to see the progress that has been made and continues to be made. However, our work is not done. Women all over the world still need support. Bring on even more breakthroughs in healthcare and create sustainable and impactful women’s health initiatives and programs. 

 

Disclaimer: This article does not intend to discriminate or discredit anyone’s experiences or beliefs. Everyone deserves access to quality healthcare. 

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