Why health equality is the next goal for the Women’s Equality party | Hannah Peaker

Our first conference highlighted government failure to address huge problems with the NHS and social care services, affecting women disproportionately

When the Women’s Equality party was established, it had six core goals: equal representation, equal pay, equal education, equal treatment by and in the media, shared opportunities and responsibilities in parenting and caregiving, and an end to violence against women and girls. Though health had been discussed, it was concluded that the debate was too polarised for us to be able to work collaboratively across political divides (a crucial part of our efforts to do politics differently). But as we held our first party conference last weekend it became apparent it must now form a key plank of our offering.

True to a party that has pledged to do politics differently, our conference was held in an industrial warehouse in Manchester that was used to store cotton until acid house gave birth to the rave scene. It was “anti-establishment” by design. Most of our members had never been to a party conference before and their participation relied on us removing the barriers that too often get in their way.

Although we focused on breakout debates and open-space workshops, so that members could pick the topics and decide how they wanted to arrive at consensus, it became apparent how far we still have to go. Many of the women who spoke began by apologising in anticipation of error – they were so little used to being asked what they wanted or to seeing other women in decision-making roles. They are used to being marginalised.

This is something that our leader, Sophie Walker, spoke to in her debut speech to conference. She described how our government only sees half the economy, leaving women invisible and exposed. The autumn statement once again overlooked women by prioritising investment in physical, rather than social, infrastructure. Despite the growing crisis in health and social care, and clear evidence that investment in care would deliver bigger employment and economic benefits, the chancellor opted for a splurge in construction spending to get Britain driving again (read: jobs for the boys).

And as delegates spoke, the issues around health came through loud and clear. Inequalities are stopping women from accessing the care and services they need. Our members spoke of funding cuts to essential social care services, weight discrimination in the fashion industry and draconian legislation on abortion. Thus our co-founders, Catherine Mayer and Sandi Toksvig, called on conference to pass a motion to adopt a seventh goal on health.

Catherine’s mind had already been changed on the issue following her sister’s death from ovarian cancer. She told conference: “It would have been her 53rd birthday on 24 November. Only 0.4% of medical research funding is invested in obstetrics and gynaecological conditions, yet more than 21,000 women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancers each year.” Sandi too described her closer understanding of the lack of gendered healthcare; a close female relative having nearly died after being misdiagnosed as having a panic attack, when she was in fact having a heart attack.

Just as with the rest of society, health and social care are shot through with inequality. Women live longer but have more years of ill health than men. Certain health issues are more commonly found in women, but medicines are engineered for men and tested on male lab rats. Far too often diagnoses are based on the way men’s symptoms present. Changing this is essential to our party’s aims because biology is not the only determinant of health. Society plays a key role in shaping health, and as long as gender inequalities prevail so too will health inequalities. It is an issue that must be tackled head on.

Constructions of masculinity and femininity shape the nature of our employment, the sleep that we get, the risks that we take, the food that we eat and the amount of exercise that we do. They shape our socioeconomic status, and exacerbate differences in our health and wellbeing.

The government’s failure to understand this is clear from its indifference over junior doctor contracts, which only serves to enshrine unequal pay, discriminate against working mothers and risk driving more women away from the medical profession. It is clear too from their failure to understand that council budget cuts are causing huge and unsustainable problems for the NHS and social care services. This unacceptable loss of care provision hits women disproportionately because women are more likely to rely on social care services, more likely to be carers and more likely to be employed in the care sector.

Walker’s speech set out a vision for building an economy that recognises the value of all of us and a tax system that reduces inequalities. The Women’s Equality party’s overwhelming support for this motion on equal health is a first step towards doing that, towards rebuilding the physical and social infrastructure that underpins our success. Because at the ballot box we are all equal.


Hannah Peaker

The GuardianTramp

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