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On International Women’s Day, Professor Jenny Higham, Principal of St George’s, University of London shares her thoughts about threats to women’s health and wellbeing worldwide and how we can begin to overcome them.   

What are the main threats to women’s health and wellbeing you see worldwide?

“I’m extremely troubled about the continued global inequality in people accessing healthcare, as well as the specific threats to women’s health which continue to put them at significant risk – often compounded by long-term poverty.

  “Particularly in the developing world, the health of women continues to be at risk through both difficulty in accessing the healthcare they need and, related to that, feeling and being empowered to make their own decisions about their health and their bodies. For example, speaking as a gynaecologist, female genital mutilation remains a huge contemporary issue.

“Not only that, women in conflict zones face disproportionately the threat of sexual violence as a weapon of war. I have cared for women affected by the most appalling physical and emotional trauma as a consequence of these despicable acts, which can reverberate for years.”

How do you these issues can be addressed?

“First, ensuring access to maternal healthcare is absolutely vital. Women in developing countries are more at risk of mortality during pregnancy, labour and following delivery. 

“I’ve seen first-hand, initially as a medical student and then across my career as a gynaecologist, how important it is that women have access to maternal healthcare services to reduce these risks. These services can also play a vital role in reducing HIV transmission from mothers to their babies.

“Access to healthcare is a key avenue through which women can also proactively take control of their health and make choices about issues such as contraception, which can have a huge impact on how they determine their own life course.”   

What is your message to the next generation of clinicians which might be thinking about these issues?

“When I teach on the Global Health Diseases module for the Master’s degrees St George’s offers in this area, I ask the students to reflect on the challenges in realising better access to healthcare worldwide for women and ensuring their physical and mental health.

“As well as empowering individual choice, this means women having access to the resources – and money – to shape this in ways which work for them.

“Finally, we, as healthcare professionals of all hues, must be aware of our potential to be advocates to ensure the voice and needs of women are heard.”