Policies, ending taboo about menstrual leave could go long way to address gender inequality. 

IT is ironic that females, who make up 70% of the global healthcare workforce, are also the most neglected when it comes to women’s health issues. In Malaysia, 97% of more than 100,000 registered nurses are female yet awareness about certain diseases that affect women, such as breast cancer, HPV infections and period pains or menstrual cramps, remains woefully low.  

Recognising this disparity, what are the steps we need to take to reduce the inequality and gap that exist between women healthcare workers and women’s health needs? 

One problem lies in the occupational segregation in the healthcare industry. Women are overrepresented in the profession as nurses and care workers. Men, on the other hand, dominate high-paying leadership positions as physicians and surgeons. Consequently, the lack of women’s representation in leadership positions in healthcare could explain the lack of communal awareness of women’s health.  

Given the dominance of women in healthcare work, it is disappointing that there is still so little knowledge about preventive care in Malaysia. Better awareness means taking an active approach to prevent certain illnesses that affect women more than men.  

However, the National Health and Morbidity Survey carried out in 2019 showed that the breast screening rate was extremely low. Three in four women aged 40 and above in Malaysia have never had a mammogram. In the case of cervical cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV) among women, a study to gauge the awareness of HPV among university students showed that there was a low level of knowledge about HPV vaccination and cervical cancer with about 30% of knowledge among non-medical faculty students.  

Another example of the neglect of women’s health issue is “period or menstrual leave” in Malaysia. Such medical leave is foreign here, leaving those suffering from dysmenorrhea, more commonly known as period pain and menstrual cramps, in agony and fearing workplace discrimination if they need MC every month. In neighbouring countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, menstrual leave of a day or two exists without any stigma attached to it.  

There are solutions to the issues highlighted here but the first and most essential step is to raise awareness of health issues affecting girls and women. When this is addressed, then the healthcare system can respond to women’s health and demands. The targeted campaigns could be modelled on campaigns like those on breast cancer and cervical cancer but expanded to reach even schoolchildren – both boys and girls.

Awareness campaigns should also target men, boys and fathers who play a role in families, organisations and communities to ensure women are not stigmatised for their biological differences like taking menstrual leave and have access to menstrual leave.  

The government could provide incentives, like the free HPV immunisation in 2019. A more government-oriented approach would provide a push and encouragement for organisations to introduce more gender-sensitive policies and Budget 2022 could also allocate more funds to women’s health. At the same time, it acts as a pull factor in the changing of mindsets on the topic of women’s health.  

The article highlights how occupational segregation and the lack of women in leadership positions affects women’s health. The solution lies in raising awareness levels combined with robust government policies. We need to care collectively about women, like how they are taking care of us.  

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