Women’s health is not just a women’s issue. When women and girls are supported to lead healthy lives, society benefits – and the Scottish Government is leading by example
The United States Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark Roe v Wade ruling, thereby ending the established right to abortion in all parts of the US, was one of the darkest days for women’s rights in my lifetime and will have a catastrophic impact on American women.
Experience tells us that countries that seek to ban abortion only ever succeed in banning safe abortion – we should be in no doubt that abortions will continue, but in a way that means women’s lives will be harmed and lost.
While the current focus is very much on the US, those who value women’s rights across the world should also be concerned. There is little doubt that this will embolden anti-abortion forces in other countries.
A woman’s right to choose – in other words, to decide what happens to her own body – is a fundamental human right and that must be protected.
In Scotland we are considering what needs to be done to improve safe access to abortion services, including how we can improve access to mid-trimester abortions for those who need or want them. Our key focus is to establish safe access zones. Women must be able to access health care, free of harassment or intimidation, which is why we are supporting the development of national legislation to protect that right, and we are progressing these plans as quickly as possible.
This is not a problem unique to Scotland, but it is one that we must act on. Hostile gatherings outside clinics create additional stress for anyone using these facilities, for any purpose, and for those who work in them. But for women accessing abortion services, the upset, distress and fear they cause can be profound.
An unacceptable situation
In my view, the current situation is unacceptable, and it is one we must address as a matter of urgency. I am determined that we do so.
That we need to take this action highlights the way in which women’s health care has been politicised in a way that men’s health care has not. It also highlights the inequalities between men’s and women’s health care that we must resolve.
Healthcare systems and healthcare research have developed using the male body and men’s needs as the de facto patient. That must be challenged.
Scotland was the first country in the United Kingdom to have a Women’s Health Plan, which aims to address women’s health inequalities and raise awareness in areas of health that need more focus and support, and to be spoken about more openly, including menopause, women’s heart health, menstrual health including endometriosis, sexual health and contraception.
It sets out several actions to be taken across sectors, including our health and public health systems, to ensure all women and girls enjoy the best possible health and health care throughout their lives. Crucially, it takes on board the real-life experiences of women who have given their feedback on what is important to them – something that has often been lacking when it comes to health care.
In Scotland, we recently passed groundbreaking legislation to become the first country in the world to make period products free for anyone who needs them. There is now a menopause specialist service in each mainland health board. And we are committed to improving access for women to appropriate support, diagnosis and the best treatment for endometriosis.
Our vision for women’s health is an ambitious one – and wider change must happen to ensure all our health and social care services meet the needs of all women, everywhere.
In taking action in Scotland, we are starting from a position where women’s rights and women’s equality are established in law even when they are not always delivered in practice. In other parts of the world, the politics of improving women’s health care is part of a wider campaign to improve women’s lives. Just as we act to protect and enhance services for women in Scotland, we must also support those working to improve access to women’s health care around the world, including supporting access to education for women and girls, a key step in improving access to health care.
Investing in women’s health
Through our international development work to date, we have invested in women’s health initiatives in our partner countries. In Malawi, through Edinburgh University, a collaborative project is developing and delivering sustainable cervical cancer screening with a focus on strengthening services for women in rural areas. And in Rwanda, we are funding, through Oxfam, a project that aims to benefit the victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
In our future international development work, we are committed to a feminist approach. We know that Covid-19 has deepened pre-existing inequalities, exposing vulnerabilities in social, political and economic systems. We have committed to prioritise the rights of women and girls, their advancement and equality. We are establishing a new Equalities Programme with a focus on the empowerment of women and girls, as well as targeting other specific areas of inequality that intersect with gender. And we will mainstream gender equality throughout the rest of our international development programmes, including in the key area of health in Malawi, Rwanda and Zambia.
Women’s health is not just a women’s issue. It is a global issue, it is a political issue and it is an economic issue. When women and girls around the world are supported to lead healthy lives and fulfil their potential, the whole of society benefits.