Socialist Alliance Senate candidate & health worker blows the whistle on the woeful state of women’s health

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Lalitha Chelliah, Senate candidate for Victoria. Photo by Sarah Stephen.

Lalitha Chelliah works as a community health nurse in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. A health worker for 25 years, she has worked in India on an AIDS prevention project. Lalitha, who is the lead Senate Candidate for the Socialist Alliance in Victoria, was among a panel of speakers to address a Radical Women meeting in April which called on women to exercise their right to choose at the upcoming Federal election by rejecting both Howard and Latham and voting for bold socialist candidates with real solutions.

Lalitha shared some of her daily experiences and observations about the state of women’s health services in Australia today. Socialist Alliance, which adopted a more detailed health policy at its 3rd National Conference held in May 2004, has a vision of a health system with very different priorities. Lalitha was part of the team which helped develop Socialist Alliance strategies for a healthier world.

“What is the biggest health problem in Australia? Today postnatal depression tops the illness chart at 20%. But services to prevent this are non-existent. And services to treat it are costly. Generally, psychiatrists do not bulk bill. Counsellors do not get a look in at charging on the Medicare system.

Major women’s health screening projects also fall short of the real needs in the community. Breast screening is only available to women over the age of 50. So if you are below 50, then it’s just bad luck! I had a client in her mid 30s who was refused a breast screen although she had cancer of the thyroid and uterus. The explanation — she did not fit their criteria! Currently I have another client in a similar predicament but she has private health insurance.

Pre-menstrual Tension (PMT), birth control, IVF, abortion, menopause and pap smear tests all have had their problems. These range from the accusation that PMT is a psychosomatic disease right through to false results in PAP smear testing. A result of outsourcing and privatisation, I would suggest.

Women in Australia are responding by voting with their uterus. Forty percent of couples now decide not to have children. A link has also been made between child health and the demands of paid work on parents. A researcher from Adelaide found that increased demands at work have a direct negative impact on childrearing.

The latest data also shows that there is an increase in many risky behaviours by teenagers. This can be linked to negative experiences in their lives as infants and toddlers.  In Australia mothers who are afflicted with postnatal depression also run the risk of not being able to bond with their children. Jeanette Milgrom from the Austin Hospital has clearly shown that infants of mothers with depression have difficulty with sleeping, feeding, weight gain and present with illnesses, such as reflux, that result from a combination of all these issues. This makes mothers feel even worse when they experience guilt and the feeling that their own illness has contributed to their child’s poor health.

Despite this, it is impossible to get mothers respite care because of a shortage of childcare places. There is a shortage of preventative measures and treatment for postnatal depression and depression as a whole. Women with previous history of depression are not properly monitored in the current medical system because of the shortage of not only funding but also staff.

The other broad area of health problems for women arise from violence. National figures show that one in every three women suffers some form of abuse by the time she is an adult. I recently cared for a woman who was raped by her stepfather from the age of three until she was thirteen. When she realised that it was all so wrong she could not prove that he had done this to her. So she suffered a double whammy. Not only was she raped, also her allegations could not be proven according to the sexist laws of this country.

Domestic violence is also rife in our community and support services inadequate. Recently I was forced to choose between visiting a woman who had suffered from severe domestic violence or visiting a woman who had discharged herself from a private hospital in a state of severe postnatal depression. She was so depressed that some of the staff thought she would harm herself or perhaps even the children. The general practitioner refused to visit her at home and she finally came to us — the Maternal and Child Health Nurses, the only universal free health service available. This is the current state of health for women and the choices faced by health workers.

I have not even touched on  health in the Aboriginal community. The state of the first Australians is the ultimate insult to humanity and their history in this land. Their matriarchal and communal society has regressed with the advent of capitalism.

It is a disgrace that this is the state of women’s health in a society like Australia.

Socialist Alliance argues for free universal healthcare. We would extend Medicare to cover the full cost of all essential health services and phase out the private health insurance levy, which is a massive subsidy for private profiteers in the health insurance business. We will also get rid of subsidies to multinational corporations. We will put decision-making into the hands of health workers and the community. We will scrap the war budget and use the money to fund essential needs. The current spending on war amounts to forty-three million dollars per day. There is an alternative! I invite you to look at the positive policies on health advocated by Socialist Alliance.”

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