It’s high time we end the taboo and make women’s health a priority

Dr Rebecca French
Following the launch of the 2023 Women’s Reproductive Health Survey, Dr Rebecca French explains why it’s vital that women are listened to, supported and empowered to make their own reproductive choices.
"It's vital that women are listened to, supported and empowered to make this own reproductive choices. This survey provides an opportunity to be heard." Dr Rebecca French, Associate Professor, LSHTM

Most women have periods for nearly 40 years. Over this time, women should be able to make choices to enable their own positive reproductive health and wellbeing, such as if and when to have children or how to access healthcare and treatment. Unfortunately, many areas of reproductive health, including abortion, miscarriages, infertility and menstrual issues, continue to be taboo topics and many women feel unheard, even when they have sought professional help. 

We also know there are disparities in reproductive health and wellbeing across England. Period poverty is an issue that has gained more attention during the economic crisis with increasing numbers of women not being able to afford menstrual products. Whether or not you can access fertility treatment may depend on your postcode. Maternal mortality is also nearly four times higher among Black women in comparison to White women.  

In June 2022, the Women’s Health Strategy for England was launched. The goal of this 10-year strategy is to improve health experiences and outcomes for women, and includes a commitment to commission a Women’s Reproductive Health Survey every two years. A team of researchers at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, including Dr Melissa Palmer, Dr Ona McCarthy and myself, were commissioned by the Department of Health and Social Care to develop and pilot the survey in 2021 and to conduct a full survey this year.  

The survey covers four broad areas: periods and menopause; preventing and planning pregnancy; pregnancy experiences; and reproductive health conditions, such as endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome. The survey is for women and people described as female at birth, aged between 16 and 55, who live in England. 

We had a great response to the 2021 pilot, with 11,578 people fully completing the survey. While some left positive comments about their reproductive experiences, the majority felt unsupported in their reproductive life course and some also described the social and financial consequences of poor reproductive health. The need for further research into reproductive health, such as the Women’s Reproductive Health Survey, was also highlighted.

“I want to go to a doctor again because my period pain is awful and the pill just makes it less frequent not less painful but I’m too scared.” - 16 years old

“Advice on contraception varies so much among healthcare professionals. Some will be helpful and sympathetic if you have problems and some dismiss you.” - 25 years old

“I would like to start a family but due to the covid pandemic I lost my job and am now working temporary contracts. This has had a negative effect on my mental health as I don't feel financially stable to start a family without long term contracts.” - 33 years old

“I think I am perimenopausal and have asked my doctor about it twice and have been dismissed both times.” - 48 years old

“I had an ectopic pregnancy 18 years ago, reproductive health never been the same since.” - 51 years old

“Women’s health must be discussed and researched more thoroughly. It’s high time this survey was conducted.” - 25 years old

The 2023 Women’s Reproductive Health survey launched on Thursday 7 September and will run for six weeks. In our pilot study, we also found that some groups were under-represented so we are working closely with Birth Companions, Brook, the LGBT Foundation and Race Equality Foundation to widen our reach. 

This survey will help our government, health services and the public understand more about the reproductive health and wellbeing of women and people described as female at birth. It will provide insights in relation to support and services, such as what is working and what could be improved. Crucially, it provides an opportunity to be heard. 

If you're a woman, or described as female at birth, in England, and aged between 16 and 55, you can complete the survey here.

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