Why Improving Women’s Health Around the World is Urgent

“Women are not dying because of untreatable diseases. They are dying because societies have not decided whether their lives are worth saving. We have not yet valued women's lives and health highly enough,” Professor Mahmoud Fathalla (Egypt), International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO)’s Past-President from 1994-1997.

Today more than ever, women worldwide are still among the most vulnerable populations because they are not given enough access to healthcare, education or because their human rights are not protected or provided enough, if at all.

We often hear that women’s rights are human’s rights: this most definitely also applies to healthcare.

Improving women’s health depends on improving their rights and vice versa. This calls for widespread commitment on both fronts, involving health professionals, institutions, politicians, and NGOs. The aim is to remove the economic, ideological, and socio-cultural obstacles to implementing actions that can change women’s lives. “The health of women and girls is of particular concern because, in many societies, they are disadvantaged by discrimination rooted in sociocultural factors.” said the World Health Organization (WHO).

Among said factors are unequal power dynamics between men and women, inequality towards education and employment opportunities, an exclusive focus on women’s reproductive roles and increased vulnerability to physical, sexual, or emotional violence. Women also face increased vulnerability in less privileged parts of the world.

Regarding health-related inequalities, in sub-Saharan Africa, women, for example, represent a significant majority of HIV/AIDS victims (63% of new infections in 2021). Every two minutes, a young woman between 15 and 24 gets infected by HIV. These women (aged 15-24) are three times more likely to contract HIV than young men of the same age.

We need urgent and long-term care for women around the globe. Prioritizing women’s health to make a difference everywhere and around the world is our mission at FIGO.

Founded in 1954, FIGO brings together 135 learned societies of gynecology and obstetrics on every continent whose aim is to improve the status of women, girls, and families to enable them to reach their full educational, sexual, and reproductive potential in harmony with their professional fulfillment and personal well-being.

In its fight for women, FIGO is also partnering with Professor Denis Mukwege, a Congolese gynecologist and winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, to support the “Red Line Initiative,” which bans the practice of rape as a weapon of war and leads on global programme activities, with a particular focus on sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. We strive to promote women’s health and rights through four fundamental pillars: education, training, research, and advocacy.

To that end, health professionals and experts from all over the globe will come together at FIGO’s upcoming congress in Paris from October 9 to 12 to share their knowledge and learn about new progress that has been made for women’s health, and the goals that we all have yet to achieve.

One excellent example is the elimination of cervical cancer.

This aim, which will considerably impact women’s lives, is one of FIGO’s priorities. Today, a woman dies of cervical cancer every two minutes worldwide, even though it can be prevented. Prevention is based on vaccinating boys and girls, ideally, before they begin sexual activity, and on screening. Cervical cancer is caused by papillomaviruses, or HPV, a family of sexually transmitted viruses. Eighty percent of the sexually active population will encounter HPV at least once, but in 90% of cases, the human body will naturally fight it and eliminate it within two years. If not, the persistent virus can lead to precancerous lesions and invasive cancer. Vaccination can prevent 90% of HPV infections that cause cancers other than cervical cancer (ENT, vulva, anus, penis).

Recommended by all learned societies and the World Health Organization, implementation varies from country to country. Australia, for example, is a good role model with a rate of 90% of vaccinated young girls, and cervical cancer is expected to be eliminated by 2035. In the US, 63,8% of young girls and 59,8% of young boys are fully vaccinated.  Rwanda became the first African country with an HPV vaccination implementation strategy and now realizes that vaccination coverage reached 99% of those born in 2002.

After an initial catch-up campaign that targeted school grades and included older girls, the programme transitioned to an age-based approach, with routine vaccination of only girls aged 12 from 2015 onwards. More than 1.15 million girls in Rwanda received their first dose of the HPV vaccine in 2011–2018 as part of this programme. Population-level HPV vaccination coverage increased from 6% for girls born in 1993 to 99% for those born in 2002.

Other countries need to catch up for several reasons. In addition to some reluctance toward vaccination, smear screening progresses slowly, often due to a need for more awareness and information. Smear screening is essential to eradicating cervical cancer: the WHO recommends screening 70% of women in all countries.

Improving prevention and women’s health understandably requires deploying resources on a par with the expected ambitions and progress. Political commitment is imperative to remove the cultural and economic obstacles to improving women’s health.

Healthy women are the cornerstone of healthy societies.

Women often provide for their families, communities, and the people around them. If women are healthier, it impacts everyone around them and eventually leads to healthier newborns, children, families, households, and communities. Leaders who prioritize women’s health can overcome gender inequality and improve the overall population’s health.

To register for the FIGO Congress, Paris, 9-12 October 2023: https://figo2023.org/registration/

[Medika Life is honored to feature this exclusive Q&A feature authored by Jeanne Conry, MD, president, The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics]


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Jeanne Conry MD
Jeanne Conry MDhttps://www.figo.org/
President, The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics; Past President, ACOG President, EHLF
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