by Professor Lynn Basford
It is without question that the health of women is subjugated to her reproductive system. That is to say her ability to: (i) conceive, (ii) carry the baby to full term, (iii) produce a healthy baby, (iv) suffer no maladies from ‘Hysteria’, (v) and when procreation has completed, suffer, ‘in silence’, through the process of menopause and beyond.
A normal process you might think, alas, this is a utopian perspective that belies the many maladies that befall thousands of women throughout their reproductive period. Starting with her menarche (onset of period) to menopause (cessation of periods).
In some societies the onset of the menarche (first period in the menstrual cycle) is celebrated by the entire community, but for the individual it can be the beginning of a life of monthly suffering from; Pre-Menstrual Tension ( PMT), pain and debilitation, heavy and prolonged periods -often leading to anaemia and emotional distress.
The cause(s) are sometimes linked to physical malformation, hormonal dysfunction, endometriosis, uterine fibroids, ovarian cysts, cervical ulceration, or, cancer.
Of those women who go on to give birth their suffering may continue through anterior, rectal or uterine prolapses. (NB these conditions can also occur with women who do not give birth- but it is rare).
Anterior prolapse is chiefly symptomised through a condition known as stress incontinence. i.e. when you sneeze, laugh or cough, leakage of urine may occur. Like wise a rectal prolapse may affect your bowel motions. A total uterine prolapse will include all three elements and in extreme cases the uterus can protrude through the vaginal opening. ( a most distressing situation). All of these conditions can affect the women’s sexual health and enjoyment.
Moving on through the period of fertility, many women are greatly affected through the dynamics of her changing hormonal system. Hot-flushes, night sweats, lack of memory, weight gain, weight loss, mood swings are indicative of the menopause. Sadly, the butt of many a comedian’s repertoire of jokes. Nonetheless, to the afflicted a process clearly not to be laughed at. It is the signal that her fertile years are over, to some a blessing, to others a psychological and physical demise.
There are other factors that also affect the health of a women’s reproductive system. Those that are linked to women’s social standing within a community, poverty, nutrition/malnutrition, anorexia and bulimia, obesity, smoking , drug abuse, and the greater politics of health.
Throughout the periods of pre and post modernity, women’s reproductive issues have been controlled through political agenda’s, (not always in the best interest of women, but more to do with societal values and expectations, power and control). Chief among these debates are; sexually transmitted disease, birth control, abortion, IVF, hormone replacement therapy, surrogacy and sperm donation.
Did you know that throughout modern history women have been incarcerated within mental institutions due to some form of reproductive dysfunction, sexual disability or social deviancy? All of which are classified and determined by men, from a perspective on sexual cleanliness, mental instability – often referred to as, ’hysteria’ – having a child out of wedlock, or, due to the fact that their husband wanted a ‘neat’ way to get rid of them.
Politically, women’s voice governing her health was non existent, and even today her voice is smothered by the masculine opinions from governing bodies, religious orders, the legal system and even the good old NHS (UK National Health Service).
When things go wrong, the health care systems, with a plethora of interventions, kick in. To the uninitiated it can seem like a minefield. From pharmaceutical therapies, hormonal therapies, complementary therapies, nutritional therapies, surgical interventions, radiotherapy and chemotherapy to name a few.
Over the ensuing months we will cover many aspects that relate to women’s reproductive health. Our input will be from, ‘women to women’. Exploring the science, new initiatives and technological innovations to the experience of women speaking from the heart of areas considered to be taboo, or embarrassing.
And we encourage you to join in! Please share your stories with us or feel free to send us your questions and we will do out best to answer them.
You can use the contact form in the ‘Tell us your Story’ box on this page or here.
The next article in this series will be on Preparing for Hysterectomy.