Advancing women’s health in south east London – The Women’s Health Initiative

08 Mar 2024

This International Women’s Day, the UN Women theme “Invest in women: accelerate progress”, is particularly important in south east London. Here, the Women’s Health Initiative – a joint effort between Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, Partnership Southwark, and various community organisations – is making significant progress.

The goal of the Initiative is to empower women from ethnic minority backgrounds by offering Vital 5 health checks and supportive spaces to discuss women’s wellbeing.

Manpreet Maycock, Assistant General Manager at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust and one of the main organisers of the Initiative, shares insights into their work, the obstacles encountered, and plans for future expansion of the project.

“The Women’s Health Initiative is a crucial step towards addressing the health disparities faced by women from ethnic minority groups in our community,” says Manpreet.

Community engagement through familiar spaces

The Women’s Health Initiative is unique due to its focus on engaging with women and carrying out Vital 5 health checks at local mosques and churches. Through its focus on places of worship as spaces for community outreach, the Initiative attracted a 95% female audience across sessions. Additionally, a patient feedback survey following the events revealed that a majority of respondents had learnt something new about health and had gained an improved understanding of the services available in Southwark.

Manpreet notes: “Engaging with women in spaces they feel comfortable in, such as places of worship, as well as within the local communities, is essential for building trust and facilitating open discussions about health. Our approach aims to break down barriers and make healthcare accessible to all women in our communities, ensuring that every woman feels empowered to prioritise her wellbeing.”

Respect for cultural customs

Key to the Initiative’s success is a profound respect for cultural norms and a keenness to understand the diverse circumstances of the women they engage with. As part of this, Manpreet and her colleagues have organised a cultural intelligence session for staff to learn how to engage respectfully and effectively during outreach sessions.

“Respecting cultural sensitivities is paramount to our work,” she explains. “By understanding and acknowledging the diverse backgrounds of the women we serve, we can tailor our approach to meet their specific needs and foster meaningful connections.”

Overcoming challenges

One of the main challenges encountered was building inclusive engagement opportunities in religious spaces, where stigma around female bodies, medical interventions and menstruation is common. The Initiative overcame this by employing mostly female staff and allowing discreet and comfortable spaces for these conversations to take place.

Manpreet reflects: “Navigating gender-specific spaces and cultural taboos can be difficult, but it’s essential to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all women. By prioritising their comfort and respecting cultural beliefs, we can overcome these obstacles and provide impactful support.”

Expanding reach

Despite early successes, the Initiative aims to extend its reach by collaborating with additional community sites such as food banks and libraries. Collaboration and partnership, as highlighted by Manpreet, are essential for sustained progress.

“As we look to the future,” she continues, “expanding our reach and forming new partnerships will be instrumental in reaching more women and delivering comprehensive support services. A main focus at the moment is learning how to provide sensitive and effective domestic abuse support, tailored to the specific situations of women in our community. Together, we can make a significant impact on women’s health outcomes in our area.”

Addressing emerging needs

In the future, the Initiative aims to improve by making marketing materials more culturally sensitive and acquiring more funding for community outreach.

Manpreet concludes: “By addressing new needs and adjusting our approach to meet the changing challenges faced by women in our community, we can keep our Initiative effective and helpful. Together, we can create a healthier and more equitable future for all women.”