When we talk about women and healthcare, we often jump to maternal healthcare. Consequently, many of us have heard the horror stories of appalling maternal healthcare in developing countries. For example, one aid representative describes how in Malawi, there were “maternity wards where there would be 100 women in labour in the courtyard, and only two working midwives” . Or how in Afghanistan, “one Afghan woman dies in childbirth about every half-hour and 20 percent of children never make it to their fifth birthday” . Who or what do we frequently blame for these abysmal stories and statistics? More often than not, we think of poverty and poor infrastructure. Indeed, these factors are major contributors to maternal healthcare and women’s access to healthcare in general. In too many areas, there are simply not enough hospitals and doctors in the right places.
However, another factor often goes unspoken and/or unnoticed: patriarchy and sexism. Do not misunderstand: patriarchy and sexism are not always intertwined. Each element can and does exist without the other. The points that I will illustrate revolve around two circumstances: instances where patriarchy is based upon sexism and instances involving sexism alone.
In certain cultures, sexism is the basis for patriarchy: men control and dictate women’s actions because men are considered more competent and stronger. As a result, women are often restricted from healthcare by their husbands or fathers. In Somaliland, women must gain permission from their husbands to access healthcare or have procedures like Caesarian sections and abortions performed . In Bangladesh, a study involving 4,500 women in slums found that 85% of women had their access to healthcare restricted by their husbands .
In some circumstances, access to healthcare is restricted by the belief that women are not valuable enough to receive healthcare. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn illustrate this idea through Prudence, a woman in Cameroon suffering from obstructed labor complications. “[A doctor] waned $100 for the [lifesaving] surgery, and Prudence’s husband and parents said that they could raise only $20…If [Prudence] had been a man, the family probably would have sold enough possessions to raise $100” .
This idea of women being valued less than men extends to many other areas of women’s lives: oftentimes, daughters are given less food than sons because sons will grow up to become valuable workers with their fathers. If a family is short on money, daughters will be the ones to stay home from school. The idea that women receive less healthcare than necessary because of their gender is astounding: the lives of women—who perpetuate the existence of the human race—are worth less than those of men.
The Western world—in the following example, the United States—is not free from this sexism. In 2001, the University of Maryland found that “Women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men… [but their] pain reports are taken less seriously” . U.S. maternal deaths increased by 136% from 1990 and 2013. Why is this? The UN explained the following:
“Experts also observed the nationwide absence of the right to paid maternity leave, and cautioned that US women face ever increasing obstacles to accessing reproductive health services, both as a result of legislative restrictions in many states and because of violent attacks on reproductive health clinic staff and patients” .
Certainly, we have made progress regarding women’s access to healthcare around the world. Worldwide maternal mortality has decreased by 43% since 1990 . Yet, as demonstrated by my previous examples, there is work to be done. Of course, we can’t barge into other countries and cultures and demand a change. But, in many ways, the most effective remedy to sexism regarding women’s access to healthcare starts in our homes and communities. We actively participate in conversations regarding gender roles, sexism, and the respect women and men inherently deserve as human beings. Then, we can begin to dispel our underlying beliefs regarding women’s worth and capabilities.
 Half the Sky, pg. 110