International Women's Day puts focus on health inequities

Wednesday 8 March, 2023

When we think of big ideas, we sometimes forget about the small steps needed to get us there. 

Each International Women’s Day, we are reminded of the big ideas that help us work towards a gender equal future. Our work at the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer focuses on how laws can help to reduce the burden of cancer and other non-communicable diseases for all people, everywhere. This burden can often be greater for women, and occasions like IWD serve as a reminder for us to continue progressing big ideas through small, sustained actions.  

For anyone, a cancer diagnosis is life changing. But for women, a cancer diagnosis can bring extra challenges, due to gendered inequities in cancer care and outcomes, research, and support. A 2021 Comment in The Lancet found that women represent close to two thirds of cancer cases diagnosed in young people (those aged 20-49). The incidence of and mortality from cervical cancer (a cancer affecting women and people with a cervix) is projected to increase by around 20 per cent globally over the next 12 years, despite the fact that cervical cancer is highly preventable, treatable and curable, and some countries are on track to eliminate cervical cancer entirely. Clinical trial participants are traditionally predominantly male, which risks rendering women invisible in cancer research. Women are more likely to be the primary carers of people affected by cancer, which can often mean hours of unpaid labour, time out of the workforce, or even having to leave the workforce altogether, putting women and their families at increased risk of poverty 

We know that gender is a social determinant of health--a factor that strongly influences a person’s health, wellbeing and quality of life. We also know that other factors intersect with gender to impact health and cancer outcomes, such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status (there are many others); which means that the burden of cancer for women of colour, First Nations women, LGBTQIA women, and women in poverty, is stark 

We need to shine a light on these burdens and barriers, and challenge the all too easily accepted norm that women bear the greater financial, social and physical impact of cancer. And while laws have been part of the problem, they can also be part of the solution.  

Take for example the work of Kenji López-Cuevas, President and Founder of Cáncer Warriors de México Foundation, UICC Board Member and member of the McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer’s Joint Oversight Committee. After witnessing first-hand the devastating impact that having a child receiving cancer treatment could have on families, Kenji advocated for legislative change in Mexico that allows one parent to support sick children by taking leave up to 28 days, which can be extended to 364 days, during which time they receive just over half of their salary and access to social security benefits. While this law applies to parents of all genders, it recognises the caring role that is so often taken on by women silently, and acknowledges the incredibly difficult demands of working and maintaining an income, and caring for someone with cancer. 

Australia’s approach to eliminating cervical cancer puts it on track to be the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer as public health problem by 2035. Key to the success of this approach has been a national cervical screening program and HPV vaccination; both of which have required legislation to be most effective. For example, both the national cervical screening and HPV vaccination programs are supported by laws that establish screening and immunisation registers, which greatly enhance screening and vaccination coverage. 

There are a multitude of ways the law can directly and indirectly address gendered cancer inequities, from laws that support better prevention and treatment of cancers that affect women, to laws that improve conditions and support for cancer carers, to laws that protect women from discrimination, violence and that guarantee physical, social and financial independence. Each of these laws might represent a small step in the broad areas of cancer research, prevention, care and support, but taken together, can be instrumental in achieving the big idea of a gender equal future.   

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