Women’s health policy in Australia has had a tumultuous journey.
It has been only 60 years since all women have had the right to vote in Federal Government elections. It’s been 14 years since the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Health Strategy was published, without implementation funds.
It has been only 10 years since a man appointed himself as the National Minister for Women, and in his first budget cut $80 Billion dollars to health and education expenditure over a decade.
It was within this context that we learnt to rely upon the language of violence and vulnerability to be heard.
We certainly have a lot to communicate in that language. In Australia almost 60 women have been killed this year. Structural racism brews following a referendum filled with misinformation. War and displacement affect our families and loved ones abroad.
Our heart rates rise when we read information like this. We are hard-wired to pay attention to danger.
For decades we’ve rallied and reported about the perils of being a woman. We regularly share statistics on sexual violence, incarceration and homicide. We’ve shared heartfelt anecdotes about ongoing intersectional abuse, violence and discrimination.
It’s led to very important National Plans to End Violence Against Women and Their Children. We’ve seen increased investment in violence response helplines, refuges and support services.
Women’s health is currently in the spotlight, in ways that it has never been before. We’ve cashed in on the attention economy.
That’s because, across recent decades, our efforts to be heard have meant our focus, and the language we use, has shifted to violence and incarceration. We’ve rebranded health and healing work using legal jargon like ‘sexual assault response’ and ‘perpetrator program’.
Throughout this time, women’s health collectives and organisations within our communities have continued to do what we have always done – we share models of connection, hope, and healing.
We should no longer need to use the language of violence to gain attention.
Women’s health is about more than our experiences of violence. Our health is also about access to education, housing, economic security. Women’s health is about connection to self, to Country, culture and kinship, to social and community supports. Our health is about autonomy to participate in democracy, advocacy and peacemaking.
Community attitudes and our broader systems are gradually shifting. Backlash exists, but that is because we are at the start of an intergenerational process of gender-transformative change.
Topics like endometriosis and pelvic pain are raised frequently within electorate offices and party rooms. We have Senate Inquiries on Reproductive Health and Menopause. We have a National Women’s Health Advisory Council. Both the ACT and Tasmania have created abortion funds.
But beneath all this is a Women’s Budget Statement that fails to fund implementation of the National Women’s Health Strategy. This failure translates directly to service gaps for women seeking care. Women’s health groups continue to rely on morning teas and cupcakes for funding, while clinics continue to rely on medical staff offering pro-bono time.
This patchwork of progress is underpinned by jurisdictional inconsistencies. Some states and territories have, or are drafting, policy on gender equity, gendered health, or sexual and reproductive health, but they lack cohesion and are ill aligned. Some jurisdictions have invested in peak bodies for women’s health, while others dissolved in funding cuts of previous decades.
Underscoring these issues is the worry that, despite gains we have seen, we risk having another iteration of Australia’s health system designed by and for men. Gender stereotypes continue to affect who joins the health workforce, who is promoted to decision making roles, and how much they are paid.
For every man in the Australian health workforce there are 2.4 women. But the gender pay gap in healthcare is pervasive. Men are still more likely to occupy decision making positions and leadership roles.
Who will be at the forefront of designing the next iteration of Australia’s health system?
With more than half of the current Health Ministers being women, we have new platforms to discuss how women in health can be supported to take on leadership roles.
This presents an opportunity for each state and territory to commit to resourcing and sharing progress on the National Women’s Health Strategy. It is an opportunity to prevent duplications and contradictions within state and territory gendered health policy, and to define gender-responsive health.
If we can share uproar about gendered violence, we can move beyond cupcakes for clinical care.
To prevent violence against women, Australia must invest in health.
Bonney Corbin is the current Chair of the Australian Women’s Health Alliance. A version of this article was published in Croakey Health Media on 9 November 2023. Read more about gender-responsive health, including the ‘Gendered Framework for Action on Prevention and Healthcare’ in our resource library.