This year’s Black History Month theme, ‘Saluting our Sisters’, is about celebrating the exceptional achievements of Black women and their contributions to society, which have often been overlooked. Unfortunately, Black women have had, and continue to have, their “contributions ignored, ideas appropriated, and voices silenced.” But this month, we salute the contributions and hard work of Black women, focusing on those who have been marginalised in healthcare.
On September 20th, 2023, the charity Wellbeing of Women in association with MHP brought together a diverse group of individuals, marginalised women, and organisations passionate about improving women’s health. This Health Collective united to lay a foundation for improving healthcare for Black women and other ethnic minorities. These communities are often referred to as ‘hard to reach’, which as a result, frequently leads to their needs being ignored. However, this event proved that these communities were not hard to reach but simply ‘easy to ignore’, as stated by the women’s health ambassador, Dame Professor Lesley Regan during the discussion. The event highlighted the incredible work being done at a grassroots level by organisations, community advocates, researchers, healthcare professionals, and charities. The aim of the collective is to ensure that the voices, knowledge, and experiences of women from ethnic minorities influence the delivery of the Women’s Health Strategy and consequently address stark health inequalities across society. The Health Collective are an example of those we celebrate through the theme ‘Saluting our Sisters’ as they are “women who move mountains, pioneering voices, women who are breaking barriers and women who lead”.
Attendees shared their experiences as marginalised women in the healthcare system. Many explained that their work has been provoked by the experiences they have had to endure, which they hope they can prevent other women facing in the future and to compensate for the failures and inadequacies in the healthcare system.
During the discussion, core themes were identified that consistently create barriers for women from marginalised groups in accessing healthcare or are a consequence of the barriers that women face. The themes outlined below were raised and will be discussed in more detail in our upcoming report.
Funding limitations for community organisations which support women’s health were mentioned, which consequently undermines their impact and reach. Often, these grassroot organisations miss out on major funding opportunities due to their small size, despite the impactful work they conduct. Additionally, the exclusion of marginalised communities in research, media and policy conversations is not conducive to developing services that provide equitable care and means that their voices are left out of policy decisions and outlook. This also contributes to and exacerbates the lack of tailored healthcare and education for women from ethnic minorities which often leads to failures in diagnosis and treatment.
Lack of cultural competency and unconscious bias from healthcare professionals when delivering care to patients was a theme highlighted during the discussion. The failure to understand cultural and religious nuances and hesitancy suggests that clinical pathways have been designed through a white-centric lens. As such we should be reviewing this area in collaboration with marginalised communities.
Maternal mortality was raised as an example of how healthcare services severely fail women from ethnic minority groups across the UK. Recent research has shown that within the Black community, the rate of women dying in the UK between 2018–2020 during pregnancy or up to six weeks after the end of their pregnancy was 3.7 times higher and 1.7 times higher amongst Asian women, compared with to the White women in the study.
The achievements and work of these women, who often have little funding support, cannot be overstated. They have shown strength in the face of adversity, overcome trauma, and utilised it as a means of helping others. The Health Collective identified diverse roles and organisations supporting women’s health locally that run impactful community programmes and events targeting the needs of marginalised women. However, most operate in silos without widespread visibility. To create synergies, advocates across geographies and health therapies can collaborate via shared platforms, funding and events. The organisations and their activities include advocacy and support groups for a range of health conditions, culturally appropriate workshops on sexual health to reach women where they are e.g. in places of worship, providing menstrual products to tackle period poverty, educational workshops and events providing information surrounding stigmatised subjects such as menopause and much more.
More needs to be done from Industry to support grassroots organisations. Industry needs to come together and support organisations by providing core funding, resources and expertise to help drive research, innovation and education for the most marginalised communities. By investing in these programmes, Industry can help pave the way for better healthcare outcomes for all. Additionally, partnering with grassroots organisations can help foster much-needed trust and collaboration between Industry and these communities and improve the understanding of the unique challenges faced by women in healthcare.
Whilst Black History Month provides an opportunity to salute the incredible work of our sisters, there needs to be continued engagement with the work they do. The Health Collective’s efforts have positively impacted many women’s lives and have addressed the significant gaps and disparities within the healthcare system. The Women’s Health Strategy is a step in the right direction towards addressing these challenges, and it’s heartening to see the Health Collective engaging with the Women’s Health Ambassador, Dame Lesley Regan. This gives us hope that the Government is committed to addressing the health of women from marginalised groups, and that it’s finally becoming a key political issue. Industry, Government and health systems need to work together to ensure that the health of marginalised women is prioritised.
By Shamilah Nyiramukwaya and Bella Smith