Yesterday, the 8 March, marked International Women’s Day. For some, any mention of women’s rights or feminism sparks a sense of ‘gender fatigue’, or as one student once commented after a lecture about gender and inequality – ‘Stop banging on about women!’. Yet the very fact that International Women’s Day prepares energetically for its centenary in 2011, suggests that even after 100 years of campaigning and consciousness-raising, there is still some way to go.
So why am I banging on about it here?
Well, in preparing teaching materials recently, on ‘power’ in health and social care, I had to find suitable examples from sexual and reproductive health. I found examples exploring pregnancy, childbirth, the ‘cervical cancer vaccine’, and sexual relationships between residents in a residential care home for adults with learning disabilities. All our teaching materials then get sent out to ‘critical readers’ – experts in the field who can point out any omissions or inaccuracies. It is one of the strengths of OU teaching, and one of the reasons our courses are so well respected. And when I received comments back from critical readers, one had questioned why there was so much on ‘women and childbirth’.
I had two knee-jerk reactions to this. My first was – ok, I take your point, let’s ditch some women and childbirth stuff and bring in other examples. My second, took me the other way – and this was to think, well no, we live in a world in which women’s sexual health is much more medicalised than men’s. Women’s bodies are subjected to the ‘medical gaze’ much more than men’s, and women suffer a disproportionate burden of ill-health and early death.
In developed countries, childbirth was for many years the main cause of female mortality, so many welcomed the ‘medicalisation’ of childbirth and growth of medical interventions during pregnancy. However, some were concerned that medical needs rather than women’s needs seemed to be dictating progress. There has been concern that interventions are often used to manage labour according to hospital needs, rather than the needs of the baby and mother.
In developing countries, the same concern to get women to deliver in hospital has been driving policy and practice for years. Whilst this might improve outcomes for the women and babies who make it to the hospital, many thousands of those women will have been abused or raped before getting there, and in some countries, the abuse will continue in the hospital – simply because they are women.
Around the world, 1500 women die everyday as a result of complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Is this really something we can afford to stop banging on about?