women's health, woman
Representational pictureReuters

It's our lot to bear pain, is a phrase that every girl hears multiple times from all the women around her during her growing-up years. While grandmothers narrate the pain they went through when hospital deliveries were unheard of in India, adolescent girls are told by mothers and teachers to put up a brave face and not show to the world that they are suffering from menstrual cramps.

Yes, generations of women have borne the horrible feeling of churning in the abdomen, nausea, headaches and crampy legs during 'those days.' And that does not mean generations to come should have to continue to suffer quietly. Just because it is the lot of women to bear pain.

Which is perhaps why only four out of every 100 women in India have undergone medical examinations of the cervix, the fourth national family health survey (NHFS), released by Union ministry of health and family welfare last week, showed.

Also read: Menopause lowers women's sexual functioning; Japanese women most affected: Study

Millions of women around the world suffer from gynaecological issues like period pain and menopausal symptoms, and conditions like fibromyalgia and urinary tract infections that affect more women than men. And most of them go about their daily chores, silently slowing down or popping pain killers when things get too tough. Few women complain, because deep down, they know their pain would not be taken seriously.

Also, despite the huge number of women suffering from these conditions, treatment options continue to be limited.

'Gender pain gap' in medical studies is a reality and researchers are waking up to it only now. Period pain — estimated to afflict one in five women — is "almost as bad as having a heart attack," John Guillebaud, professor of reproductive health at University College London, was quoted by Quartz as saying. "Men don't get it and it hasn't been given the centrality it should have. I do believe it's something that should be taken care of, like anything else in medicine."

Menstrual cramps and menopause-related symptoms are often brushed off because they 'happen to every woman'. And in the process, conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovaries remain undiagnosed in women for years, and often come to light only when she tries to conceive a baby.

On the other hand, conditions like fibromyalgia, into which very little research has been done, are often dismissed as a woman's over-reaction, hypochondria, or worse still but not uncommonly so, attention-seeking tactics.

In their paper, The Girl Who Cried Pain: A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, in 2001, researchers Diane E. Hoffmann and Anita J. Tarzian of University of Maryland said that women are more likely than men to seek treatment for pain. But they "are also more likely to be inadequately treated by health-care providers, who, at least initially, discount women's verbal pain reports and attribute more import to biological pain contributors than emotional or psychological pain contributors."

While studies like the Yentl Syndrome — that show difference in course of action taken for heart attacks for men than for women — have proved the existence of gender bias in medical research and treatment, little headway has been made to correct the skew.

Yes, big strides have unarguably been taken for childbirth and maternity health, and also breast and cervix cancer. But potentially fatal diseases apart, the efforts in medical research, unfortunately, seem to be centred around the notion that the primary reason of her being is to reproduce.

Pregnant and lactating women are treated with love and care across all nations and cultures, and wonderful modern and traditional medical means are available to aid pre-natal and post-natal well-being. However, the attention that a woman gets in those few months is perhaps driven more by society's desire to ensure a healthy offspring, than a happy, stress-free mother. Until the two are seen as one entity, women will have to continue to fight for their lot to be pain-free.