What do we know about women’s health?

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As we are pulling together all of our final preparations for the North America Emerging Leaders Conference that will take place this upcoming weekend, the conversations in the office keep returning to the topic of women’s health.  Coincidentally, WYA’s sister organization, FEMM (Fertility Education and Medical Management), just launched its first clinic in Columbus Ohio and published its first research document entitled The Case for FEMM.  Reproductive health has been at the forefront of UN development policies for quite some time, and there doesn’t seem to be much debate over its significance as an international issue.  The real question, and one which we want to address in our conference, is, if reproductive health is so important, why do we know so little about it?

I came across this article on a session of NPR’s Morning Edition during my morning news browsing, and was a bit baffled by it.  The article asked whether women who experience severe premenstrual symptoms or suffer from premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) should be classified as mentally ill.  The piece was certainly clear about the disabling effects of these symptoms, but what remains foggy is any consensus in the area of treatment.  Instead of topping off PMDD with an added mental illness diagnosis, shouldn’t we be focusing on treating the reproductive health issues at the root of the problem?

And herein lies the crux of the obstacle.  Despite all our medical advances, there is still very little we know about reproductive health and its relation to mental, hormonal and overall health.  The article discusses support groups for women suffering from PMDD, in which they share information about which coping methods have worked for them, from anti-depressants to birth control to diet and exercise.  Unfortunately, there is not enough medical research available to make solutions accessible.  The article concludes with a gloomy prognosis surmising that women can find hope in the fact that the symptoms do subside, “at least for awhile.”

Our own hope for FEMM is that we can offer real answers to women that go beyond bleak encouragement to bury the symptoms under higher doses of anti-depressants and synthetic birth control hormones.  I could certainly agree with the point made that “there’s a lot of money to be made” from those types of answers.  The title of our conference, Women and Health: Dismantling a Culture of Commodification, indicates that women’s health is an area of great exploitation.  However, we can’t simply demonize the pharmaceuticals that profit from passing out more and more pills.  Instead we hope to engage young people in a fruitful discussion on how we can change the culture climate, so that women and men are treated as persons and not as opportunities for profit.

By Marie Murray, Director of Operations for WYA North America