As this year's International Women's Day approaches, Kate McIlwain explores an Illawarra health centre fighting the daily battle against the risks of being a woman.
For Donna, it started with a quit smoking support group.
She had chronic depression and anxiety, panic attacks over leaving her house and was suffering post traumatic stress from what she terms “domestic crap”.
Two years ago, the 50-something mother had moved back to Barrack Heights after some time living away, and was convinced to attend the support group at the nearby Illawarra Women’s Health Centre.
”It took me three months to come here,” she remembers, sitting in the centre.
“I knew that I wanted to come, but I was very frightened to go anywhere on my own, because I had post traumatic stress from domestic crap … so I wouldn’t even go to shopping centres – I still only go to little ones.
“I thought, okay you’re not going to die, just go. And it was fantastic. There was a whole bunch of women, and we were all going through similar things. We all had things happen to us in the past.
“Then I saw the craft group. I just kind of sat there the first time and had a cup of coffee, and I thought ‘yep, this is alright, nothing has happened to me and it’s ok’. So I just started coming back.”
Fast forward two years and Donna now runs the quit smoking group and has started to attend seminars on consulting with a view to starting her own business.
She has also become a foster mum to a six-month-old boy, and has come to rely on her close knit circle of friends from her groups at the women centre.
“My brain is working, I’m taking in knowledge and I’m doing things I never could do before,” she said.
“It’s like a snowball. I didn’t think I was this sort of person – the type of person who has friends – but now my friends are babysitting my baby boy and I have so much support.”
Donna’s story is far from isolated at the Warilla-based Illawarra Women’s Health Centre, which has been operating as a not-for-profit to help women for the past 30 years.
As well as offering support groups, yoga classes and social events, the centre has a free medical clinic with female doctors, counselling services and outreach programs.
Women can drop in to pick up sanitary products or clothes, and access legal advice or mental health support.
This year, amid growing awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault, increasing incidences of anxiety, depression and stress, and more women sick with cardiovascular and lifestyle diseases, the centre is hoping to expand its reach into the northern parts of the Illawarra.
To do this, the first challenge is literally “getting women through the door”.
“Sometimes people go ‘oh, you’re at a women’s health centre and you do a craft group’ and that can be really dismissed,” general manager Sally Stevenson says.
However, for many women – like Donna – a craft group or quit smoking support can be a gateway to services that they wouldn’t otherwise seek out. For others, the service works the other way, where basic medical services can lead to counselling or social group support.
“Our services are all integrated,” Ms Stevenson said. “We can do really quick soft referrals, because we know a lot of domestic violence is revealed in a GP setting – so [our doctor] can immediately plug a woman in to a counsellor, or support group, or just a cup of tea.”
"We don't offer 10 minute consultations and push people through. Women can have any time they need, they are listened to. And often what just starts as a simple medical problem is revealed as much more complex.
“This is the space where a lot of domestic violence experiences are disclosed for the very first time."
While addressing and preventing domestic and sexual violence is undoubtedly one of the main focus areas for the centre, board member Judy Daunt says women don’t have to have a particular need or problem to attend.
“People don’t need to see themselves as having an identified need that would warrant them coming to the centre – the fact that they are a women is enough,” she says.
“There are issues that can affect all women, regardless of who they are or where they’re from.”
Or as Ms Stevenson puts it, “in and of itself, being a woman is a risk to your health”.
“Mainstream health systems are not gender focused,” she says.
“Because of women’s position in society and the way women are both perceived and treated, that has an impact on our health, from a socioeconomic point of view, from an opportunities point of view and from risks around certain health issues.
“The majority of research today has been done on middle aged men in heart disease, for instance.
“Women’s experiences are quite different, but the mainstream health system does not recognise that women are experiencing disease biologically differently, and also experiencing mental health and wellbeing differently.”
There is also little recognition, she says, that women’s health goes well beyond the traditional perception that it’s just about mammograms and pap smears.
“We are not just our reproductive systems, and women exist way beyond where those reproductive systems are being used – when they are girls or going through menopause for instance,” Ms Stevenson says.
Long-term client Emma, 52, who attends the centre for a range of complex health needs says it has been a relief to attend a medical centre with a focus on women.
“I don’t have to rely on someone believing me, when I say there is a problem – the nurse here already knows about it and is very proactive,” she said.
“I think there’s a danger of being disregarded to some degree if practitioners that you’re seeing aren’t aware of what it is to live a life as a woman. There are also stereotypes we put on women – ‘she’s just a menopausal woman’ or overreacting or something – it can mean people might not listen.
“This centre is geared to look at anything that can impact on the lives of women and you’re automatically heard.”
Find more: womenshealthcentre.com.au
The risks of being a woman
- Suicide is now the most common cause of death for women between 15-44.
- Intimate partner violence causes more illness, disability and deaths than any other risk factor for women aged 25–44
- Overall, 1 in 5 women (1.7 million) and 1 in 20 men (428,800) have experienced sexual violence. Most (96%) female victims of sexual violence reported the perpetrator as male, while male victims reported a more even split (49% female and 44% male perpetrators).
- On average, one woman a week and one man a month is killed by a current or former partner.
- Indigenous women, young women and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence.
- Heart disease kills four times more Australian women than breast cancer. It is the number one killer for women.
- Hypertension (high blood pressure) is two to three times more common in women than in men, and it becomes much more common as you get older.
- About 40% of heart attacks in women are fatal, and many occur without prior warning. Symptoms for women can be different to those for men and women are less likely to seek help quickly. Some health professionals are less likely to check for heart disease in women.
Sources: Heart Research Australia, the Australian Institute of health and Welfare.