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2023 National Women's Conference
14 October 2022

Conference notes the December 2021 government policy paper ‘Our Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England’, published after 100,000 women shared their personal experiences around the way the health and care system listens to women. The document looked at the approach to women’s health by putting women’s voices at the heart of this work. The policy paper was based on information and the voices of women, in addition to building on two previous reports. A 2020 report, the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review, played a vital part in the recommendations in the report.

Conference we have all heard about the failure of testing of the vaginal mesh which has led to women being left with impairments for the remainder of their lives. A further 2020 independent report into the issues raised by Ian Paterson, a former surgeon, was also crucial. This report found ‘it is often women whom the healthcare system fails to keep safe, and whom systems fail to listen to’.

Conference believes that there is not a woman who won’t recognise the need for a Women’s Health Strategy, after decades of gender health inequalities. The ‘Vision’ document contains evidence around health in the workplace, with the report highlighting that health conditions and impairments impact on women at work, leading to increased stress levels and mental health impacts. It calls on employers to look to flexible working arrangements to reflect that women make up 51% of the workforce.

Conference acknowledges the long struggle our women across UNISON (black, disabled & LGBT+) have within employment and the impact of the disenabling elements that come with periods, menopause, endometriosis to name a few conditions that for women can be extremely painful and cause extra time away from work. This is in addition to dealing with the impact on other impairments and ever-increasing comments like ‘It’s Just a Women’s Thing’. While on average women in the UK live longer than men, women spend a greater proportion of their lives in ill health and disability. This is on top of growing geographical differences and disparities between different groups of women in how they access services. Doctors’ routine dismissal of women’s debilitating health problems as “benign” has contributed to gynaecology waiting lists soaring by 60% to more than half a million patients. Dr Edward Morris of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said institutionalised gender bias meant the term “benign” was used more widely in gynaecology. Resulting in conditions being normalised and deprioritised within the NHS.

Conference welcomes the work towards producing a women’s health strategy in light of the need to improve the health of all women and girls and to build an approach to women’s health that is inclusive of LGBT+, Disabled & Black communities. Changing what is an institutionalised culture will not be easy but there are no ‘quick fixes’ we can take that would risk the health of women.

Conference, for our part as a union, we need to ensure that we negotiate robust guidance and inclusive sickness policies. Conference notes in response to the strategy that “UNISON considers that a women’s health strategy should include health and well- being in the workplace, work life balance and occupational hazards as well as biological matters. It should also include consideration of ways to promote good health and prevent ill health at work.”

Conference women and their health are influenced by many things during their lifetime from the job roles, family responsibilities, different health impacts and exposures in and out of work environment even down to their own biology. Even on how the Pandemic effected women differently both physically and mentally impacting on their already inequalities pre the pandemic the long lasting effects are yet unknown by many women.

While we welcome this strategy and at present conference, that is all it is, we need to see robust action that reaches the very women who are identified within it. We welcome the response from our own union but conference it could of reached out to our grassroots women and reached our regional women’s committees and networks.

Conference calls on the National Women’s Committee to

1: Work with National Health Service Group to campaign to ensure that women’s voice is not diluted furthermore within the Women’s strategy of all women’s health by pitting one women’s need against another.

2: Work with Labour Link to seek to ensure the Labour Party holds the government to account on addressing women’s health inequalities

3. Raise awareness of these issues across the union and consider backing appropriate campaigns for action

4. Continue to produce and circulate guidance on negotiating sickness absence policies and disability leave.