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Address inequality: prevent cervical cancer

Marleen Temmerman, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research including UNDP-UNFPA-UNICEF-WHO-World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction

3 December 2014

Why does equality matter?

I am often asked why I care so much about equality – particularly gender equality. My answer is that I cannot forget the young women and babies who have died in my arms simply because they lived in places where they could not access health services which would have saved their lives. There is nothing worse than holding a dying woman in your arms and thinking: “If we were somewhere else right now, she would have lived.”

Marleen Temmerman, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research.

Cervical cancer is one disease that starkly illustrates the impact of inequality upon women’s health. It occurs worldwide, but most women who die from cervical cancer live in less developed countries. Every year, more than 270 000 women die of cervical cancer, 85% of them in low- and middle-income countries.

Inequalities in access exist not only between countries but within them too: in more developed countries, poorer women, particularly those living in rural areas, are less able to access services and are therefore at greater risk.

Ending preventable deaths

We know how to help prevent cervical cancer. It is unacceptable that so many women around the world continue to die from the disease. Whilst cervical cancer rates have fallen in most of the developed world (thanks to effective screening and treatment programmes), cervical cancer rates in less developed countries have risen or remain unchanged. If we do not act now, the number of deaths caused by cervical cancer is projected to rise by almost 25% over the next 10 years.

If we use the right approach however, we can work to reduce these numbers. This requires action on multiple fronts.

One key approach is to intensify efforts to strengthen health systems and to move closer to universal health coverage – to ensure that everyone, whoever they are and wherever they live, can access all the health services they need without experiencing financial hardship.

Those services include interventions that span the course of a woman’s life from childhood to adulthood. They include vaccinating girls against the cause of cervical cancer, the human papillomavirus (HPV), aiming to reach them before they become sexually active. They also include screening and treatment of women between the ages of 30 and 49, as well as providing treatment for cervical cancer and palliative care.

Safeguarding rights, safeguarding lives

When a woman dies from cervical cancer, she is often at the prime of her life. She may be the primary caregiver in a family, and working in her community. If we are to safeguard the wellbeing of women, families, communities and societies, we must fight for women’s rights to access health services.

Wherever I have worked across the world, be it in Belgium, Switzerland or in Kenya, I have never been able to turn a blind eye to inequality and injustice. I firmly believe that if we are to win the fight against cervical cancer, promoting women’s rights – including their right to access health care – must remain at the heart of everything we do.