Days of opportunity

It seems to me that for some, this world has taken a step backwards.

From the bright and hopeful start of women’s work towards social equality with men, I am seeing darkness creeping back. Abuse, sexual harassment, tacit approval of rape as a ‘weapon of correction’, violence towards women offered as entertainment, workplace bullying, suppression in the name of tradition and family pride, marginalisation and dismissal of our ideas and contributions in a way that men would not be expected to tolerate.

So when I hear of an organisation dedicated to opening horizons of opportunity for girls and women, even in a personal and private way, I’m interested. And when that contribution makes an unspoken but shattering difference to millions of lives over dozens of years, I want to know more.

If you’re a man, this may make uncomfortable reading. With all possible goodwill: Toughen up, princess. This is something every woman has to deal with, for most of her life.

The organisation is called Days for Girls, and its strapline is Every Girl, Everywhere. Period. It seeks to ensure that every girl and woman has access to adequate, healthy and sustainable sanitary protection. It offers dignity, hope, freedom from stigma and the ability to keep attending school and work instead of losing days, weeks and months of their lives, stuck at home and often ostracised as ‘unclean’ because it’s their time of the month and they have nothing to help them deal with that. From early beginnings in 2008, the organisation has become international, and to date it has helped over 1,000,000 women in more than 124 countries. That’s a lot of new freedom, a lot of new opportunity.

Yesterday, I joined my local branch, and came away with ‘homework’. Many volunteers work together once a week, others take work home and bring finished items back when they are done. I have piles of fabric to assemble into one element of the kit each girl and woman receives. Each kit is estimated to take 8 woman-hours: a gift from one woman to another, one day spent to give another woman days and days of a better, richer life. The design has been refined and re-refined in the 10 years it has been in use. A lot of thought has gone into creating something that is sensitive to the widest possible variety of local ideas, traditions and taboos. Girls receive a discreet bag filled with the sanitary necessities to take them through each month and to last for years to come. Some of the kits have been in use for more than 5 years already. I am incredibly proud to be a small part of this chain of hands held out to our sisters, who receive not only these necessities, but also basic instruction on their use, plus hygiene and sex education. Co-ordinators go in person to deliver hundreds of kits and the education. Where this is not possible, the kits are passed on to the volunteers on Mercy Ships to deliver together with education, where they are making port and offering medical care.

I think a lot of men are bored with hearing about ‘women’s issues’. When you’re at the top of the food chain, you maybe don’t feel the need to pay attention to those at the margins – and make no mistake, women as a whole are still at the margins despite decades of knocking at the door and banging our heads on the glass ceiling. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still such a long way to go… So it’s down to women to help each other. I am glad to help offer freedom and dignity to young women, so that they can enjoy as much opportunity as their circumstances permit, and travel in life as far as their imaginations will take them.

I expect some umbrage to be taken about my opinions. It is human to hold differing opinions and to believe different things, based on our experiences. If you wish to express your disagreement rationally and without abuse, your comments are welcome. Trolls and anyone using abuse to make their point will be deleted.

But nothing will convince me that this concept is not a shining light of compassion, rationality and sisterhood.

That Extra X

Yesterday on the news there was yet another article about how having two X chromosomes is bad for your health.

Dr Clara Chow, Professor of Medicine at University of Sydney Medical School and a noted cardiologist, discussed her surprise at the findings of recent research which found that women die from heart attacks at twice the rate of men. This isn’t because their disease is worse or because they are more prone to STEMI, the particular heart disease investigated in the study. It was because they are half as likely to receive prompt and appropriate tests and treatment in hospital. Dr Chow couldn’t understand how this could be, because doctors are ‘supposed’ to treat certain cardiac diseases in men and women in exactly the same way. Duh.

This is shocking, but personally, I don’t find it entirely surprising. Authoritative research has found that in emergency care, women are less likely to be admitted to intensive care, to be put onto respirators and be given appropriate drugs or bypass surgery. Another study has shown that after cardiac surgery, men received adequate pain medication. Women? They received sedatives instead. In pain? Oh no, we’re just a little hysterical….

There is an entrenched tendency in the medical professions of the United States, Europe and, apparently, Australia, to doubt women complaining of cardiac symptoms, and to fail to investigate their cases as thoroughly as they would with men. It’s the same with pain. Women in acute pain are less likely to get any kind of pain relief and 15-20% less likely to receive something effective, like opiates. And the really sad part is that young female doctors are just as likely to marginalise pain and illness in women as older male doctors are. Heart attack? No, dear, it’s all in your mind.

I became interested in the perception and treatment of serious chronic pain while I was experiencing it myself, waiting for spinal surgery. I discovered Judy Foreman’s excellent book, A Nation In Pain, about the management and treatment of chronic pain in the USA. It is meticulously researched, cites 115 pages of sources and gives a sad and worrying picture of modern medicine’s failure to manage intractable pain and give sufferers a decent quality of life. But the pages that really stuck in my mind were those that dealt with how differently women are treated, how their illness and pain is dismissed and marginalised, and how medical training and attitudes condemn human beings to lives of unnecessary suffering and ill health because they are women.

Those who are supposed to be helping us have become gatekeepers by virtue of their training, preventing us accessing the care and medication we need when we are sick and in pain. But if you’re blessed – or burdened – with that second X, just don’t take no for an answer. Your illness matters, your pain matters, your quality of life matters.

And if you simply accept second class treatment, nothing will ever change.


I’m sorry if this comes across as a rant. I’ve tried to keep my tone rational and cool, rather than expressing the passionate fury I felt. Women are entitled to expect the same treatment and level of care as men, and despite the medical profession’s implication that women are somehow to blame because we “didn’t present soon enough” or we “didn’t recognise that it was a heart attack”, it’s not our responsibility or our ‘fault’ if we are not receiving the same care.