Taking care of women’s health is a huge part of the work Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are doing around the world at any given time. To mark International Women’s Day, March 8, we take a look at some of the biggest health challenges facing women—and what we can do to overcome them.
For example, we know that cervical cancer is preventable, detectable, and treatable when it’s caught early. So why are so many women around the world still dying from this disease? An estimated 311,000 women died of cervical cancer in 2018—more than 85 percent of them in low- and middle-income countries. That same year, 570,000 new cases were diagnosed.
Our teams provide cervical cancer care in many countries where women suffer from unequal access to diagnostics and treatment. MSF has its most comprehensive cervical cancer care program in Malawi, where both the incidence and mortality rates for the disease are the highest in the world. We also provide cervical cancer care in countries including the Philippines, Mali, and Zimbabwe. And we help vaccinate women and girls against human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection that can cause cervical cancer.
Fighting cervical cancer
Providing sexual and reproductive health care to women and girls is an integral part of our work. Our teams offer pre- and postnatal care, as well as emergency obstetrics. In 2018, we assisted more than 309,000 births, including Caesarean sections. We know that most maternal deaths occur just before, during, or just after delivery. So timely access to qualified staff can be a question of life or death for women experiencing complications during childbirth. MSF works to remedy the 'three delays' women face in receiving care during childbirth: the delay in deciding to seek care, the delay in reaching a health center, and the delay in receiving adequate treatment.
We also offer a range of contraception options to women at our projects. Providing contraception can help prevent death and injury by reducing the number of unplanned pregnancies, which can be dangerous for women with little access to health care. Greater access to contraception helps reduce the number of unsafe abortions.
Unsafe abortions remain a leading cause of maternal mortality worldwide. About 97 per cent of unsafe abortions and related deaths occur in Africa, Latin America, and southern and western Asia, all regions where MSF offers medical assistance to people in need. We know that when a woman or girl is determined to end her pregnancy she will do so, regardless of the safety and legality of the procedure. We see the devastating consequences every day. In 2017, MSF teams treated more than 22,000 patients with post-abortion complications—including severe hemorrhage, sepsis (severe general infection), poisoning, uterine perforation, or damage to other internal organs. MSF is working to improve access to safe abortion care for women and girls who need it.
We also highlight the harmful impacts of the Global Gag Rule—a US policy reinstated and expanded in 2017 to prevent health providers around the world from even speaking about abortion or making referrals to other organizations that provide safe abortion care. The latest version of the Global Gag Rule is even more sweeping than earlier rounds, as it applies restrictions on all US-funded global health assistance, not only aid to organizations involved in family planning.
REDUCING MATERNAL MORTALITY
MSF also cares for women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence. Women and adolescent girls living in conflict situations, in refugee camps, or on the run are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. Sexual violence may be used by warring parties as a deliberate strategy to punish or control communities; by border guards abusing their power; or by human smugglers in coerced exchange for food and other basic needs. Sexual violence is a medical emergency that can lead to sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV, unwanted pregnancies, and long-term mental health consequences. In 2018, MSF provided medical treatment to nearly 25,000 victims of sexual violence. We also offer psychosocial counseling to survivors.