A look back at sexism in women’s healthcare this week

This week it was a real privilege to feature a guest post from asylum seeker ‘Elizabeth’, a woman supported by my former colleagues at Women for Refugee Women (WRW).

In 2017 a British Medical Association (BMA) report on immigration removal centres – including Yarls Wood, where ‘Elizabeth’ was detained – stated that: “Problems with the accuracy and timeliness of health assessments, availability of services, staff shortages, and ensuring continuity of care have all been identified as adversely impacting on the standard of care provided in detention. For some detainees with complex health needs, there is a question of whether their needs can be met in the detention setting.”

During my time at WRW I visited Yarls Wood detention centre on a monthly basis, meeting two asylum seeking women each time. One of the things I heard about most frequently was the culture of disbelief in healthcare (which is run by G4S).

Women in severe pain were consistently palmed off with paracetamol. Women with heavy periods were asked to “prove” they needed fresh pads. Women with severe mental health problems were kept in solitary confinement for ‘behavioural problems’ or ‘non-compliance’.

One woman, who had enormous fibroids, was forced to wait in pain for months before staff would even refer her to the local hospital for treatment. By the time she was eventually taken for an operation to remove the growths, her abdomen had swollen up like a beach ball.

The issues around healthcare in detention clearly go far beyond just sexism, but women like ‘Elizabeth’ – many of whom are survivors of torture and/or sexual violence – are just about as vulnerable as it gets, and their dismissal as hysterical women should shame us all.

In other news this week…

Woman, 30, had bowel cancer symptoms dismissed as ‘women’s problems’, and now has a permanent colostomy bag

The i this week reports on a young women who spent months being dismissed and not taken seriously by her GP, only to later be diagnosed with stage 3 bowel cancer.

Gemma Savory kept telling her GP that something didn’t feel right after suffering stomach cramps and constipation that wouldn’t go away.

Then aged 30, she’d felt unusually exhausted too. After months of bowel problems and bloating she’d lost her appetite and dropped two stone. She was also suffering with worrying vaginal bleeding – yet she says a doctor at her local surgery blocked her GP’s referral to a hospital specialist.

“I was told it may be hormonal problems, possibly endometriosis – it was dismissed as ‘women’s problems’,” she told i. “They just sent me away to manage it by myself.”

Gemma, now 34, has a family history of bowel cancer yet this didn’t ring alarm bells early on. “I think they just thought I was too young to have bowel cancer, it’s considered an older person’s disease. I wasn’t too worried at first because they didn’t seem too concerned and I didn’t want to come across as a drama queen.

It took eight months of persistent symptoms before Gemma was referred to a specialist. She then had to “beg” for a second colposcopy to investigate her symptoms before finally being diagnosed.

“It was a shock to find out I had a tumour that was eight inches long,” she said. “I was told it had probably been slowly growing for around five years.”

Mental health: The NHS patients who are ‘abused and ignored’

An independent review into the 1983 Mental Health Act was published this week, concluding that the Act is outdated and in need of an overhaul, and that sectioning is misused. 56 year old Kate King, who has previously been sectioned and detained under the Act, told BBC News:

I was abused and ignored. I lost my voice. I was restrained face down on a mattress. One nurse even told me I should kill myself. When I tried to object or complain, I was not listened to. There was good care too – I remember once being taken go-karting. But my experiences left me anxious and suicidal.

Women’s mental health charity Agenda responded to the report, saying:

The contraceptive industry is sexist. Women have suffered in silence for too long

Actress and campaigner Nicola Thorp wrote for Metro this week about the sexism that expects women to simply put up with contraceptive side effects.

With the exception of the vasectomy, which is now sadly being phased out of the NHS, men do not have to undergo any minor surgical procedures, hormone-altering treatments or months of agony in order to enjoy sex without the risk of conception. Yet, for women, it is the accepted norm.

It’s not as though there is no potential for a male alternative. You may be aware of the news story that broke a couple of years ago about a medical trial for a male contraception. It was abandoned mid-trial because of concerns over side effects, including: mood changes, muscle pain and acne. Symptoms most women on the pill already experience, and yet we are expected to soldier on.

Women have a long history of being silenced, or disbelieved when it comes to their health. It wasn’t too long ago that we were being sectioned for ‘hysteria’ over a bad case of PMS.

To this day, many friends of mine have repeatedly complained to their GP of unusual abdomen pain, only to be told that it’s just ‘women’s problems’, and that it’s ‘normal’.

It’s not normal. There needs to be a culture shift. We must stop telling ourselves that the crippling side effects of contraceptives are acceptable because if we don’t take action, nothing will change.

And finally…

Emer O’Toole wrote brilliantly for The Guardian about the political manoeuvring following Ireland’s referendum to overturn the abortion ban, and the impact it could have on women’s access to reproductive healthcare.

This abortion law isn’t what Ireland voted for:

Exit polls show that 62% of people cited a woman’s right to choose as the motivation for their votes, and 55% cited women’s health. These were the electorate’s two main priorities. There is no ambiguity about what the people want.

Yet, as the regulation of termination of pregnancy bill emerges from the circus of the Dáil debates, it is apparent that our representatives are still not listening. A mandatory three-day waiting period; unnecessary criminalisation; casting the patient’s views of risks to her health or of the probable gestational date as clinically irrelevant; creating an unworkably high bar for access to abortion where the health of the pregnant person is at risk; and regulations that seem designed primarily to create barriers to safe, legal care – this is not what the Irish people voted for.

If you don’t stop to think through the actual ramifications of these unnecessary regulations, they might seem minor. What’s a three-day wait period? What difference does it make if the doctor who originally examined you must carry out the termination? But abortion is time-sensitive. For someone at 10 weeks of pregnancy, with childcare and work commitments, these stalling tactics are the difference between accessing safe, legal care at home and begging money for the boat to Liverpool.