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What is ‘women’s health’?

"Women's health is often seen as being about the health of women’s reproductive ‘bits’ – namely wombs, breasts and vaginas! Women’s health nurses are employed to provide breast and cervical screening services. Women’s hospitals provide specialist gynaecological and childbirth services. ‘Well’ women’s health services are promoted as providing a full range of services when in many cases they are narrow and focus on women’s reproductive health. Health status data though show us that it is not only reproductive issues that cause women’s ill-health.2

"Women’s health then is about all health issues that affect women. Women’s health is about recognising the diversity of women’s lives and the diversity that exists among women. Key principles are encouraging women to take control of their bodies (based on a full range of information and access to appropriate health care), education, collaborative decision making between women and their health care providers (with women deciding for themselves what happens to their bodies), and a social model of health (that takes account of more than just body parts and recognises the context of women’s lives, e.g. the influence of social factors such as housing and employment on health and well-being). Women’s health is based on an all-encompassing view of health whereby, 'health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'3 and has as its starting point personally-defined needs (e.g. what the woman thinks is right/wrong), rather than professionally-defined needs (e.g. what a doctor thinks is right/wrong).4

"In order to understand what women’s health is, and why we do it, it’s also necessary to understand the history of the Australian women’s health movement over the past 25 years. Feminist critiques over the past quarter of a century have focussed on women’s inability to participate equally in the health care system because of a power imbalance created by men’s control of the system. Doctor-patient interactions were characterised by domination and subordination.5 Women’s experience within the health care system reflected their place in society, with men’s experience being viewed as the norm and women’s experience as being deviant from this.6

"Furthermore, health has been understood to be the same as medicine and science (with a focus on illness, not wellness), which have a long male-dominated history of looking at the world based on the experiences of men in their own interests, never by or for women themselves.7 There is also a need to understand that women's health arose from community development, preceding the consumer movement, and has been based on women’s rights to access information and services which they themselves see as appropriate. It arose from within the feminist movement and has been political from the beginning."

Excerpt from: ‘Why Women’s Health?' by Kim Johnstone, Sarah Brown and Marilyn Beaumont of Women's Health Victoria, 2001
Reproduced with permission. For the full document including relevant references visit Women's Health Victoria: