No-one in our profession, seeing the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan over the past weeks, can fail to be concerned about the impact of the turmoil on the rights and health of women in the country and those who have been evacuated abroad.
The data has shown for many years that the health of women in Afghanistan, specifically in relation to pregnancy, has been among the worst in the world, and many fear that much of the progress made over the past 20 years could be reversed.
The UK, along with many other countries around the world, has evacuated thousands of Afghan families. We are aware already that some of the women who have arrived here in the UK are pregnant. I have already met with senior Department of Health officials and the Royal College of Midwives to try to proactively ensure that the Health and Social care system in the UK not only recognises the rights of these women, but that they are afforded as seamless an entry into our care system as possible – a desire I am sure is shared by colleagues outside of the UK also. I hope to be able to inform you through our member communications of progress in the near future.
The issue of the rights of pregnant women worldwide is, in my view, a global priority, and one that the RCOG has championed for decades in its international work. Therefore, I was delighted earlier this year when the World Health Organisation decided that the theme of this year’s World Patient Safety Day, on Friday 17 September, would be safety in maternal and newborn care.
We will be marking this day through a range of activities, the centrepiece being leading a project with FIGO and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to develop a Bill of Rights to reduce global maternal mortality. We anticipate that this will be used by the WHO to drive safety in maternity worldwide.
Back here in the UK, many of us who have been fortunate enough to have a period of summer leave will be coming back to work, and this will hopefully mean that the pressures on our rotas eases a little. While this may be a small comfort, the UK health system continues to feel a high level of impact from COVID-19, especially among pregnant women. Wherever you are in the world, it’s likely you will have seen a severely affected pregnant woman and I am saddened to hear from UKOSS that there have been some recent maternal deaths from severe COVID-19 in the UK. This means that the messages we have on our website and FAQs remain just as important as they have ever been. Our vaccine subgroup continues to work hard on its advocacy for pregnant women while the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation debates the need for booster vaccines and the introduction of new vaccines.
I have personally been working on two very relevant issues to the rights of women in the UK. With the RCOG Policy Team we have just started a project attempting to unpick the longstanding imbalance in the length of waiting lists of women with benign gynaecological conditions, including urogynaecology.
The practices of ‘virginity testing’ and hymenoplasty have, in my view and that of many others, no place in modern medicine under any circumstances and we recently published our position statement on these issues. While there is committed support from the UK Government for a ban on virginity testing, we are working closely with other expert organisations in women’s health and women’s rights, including the Royal College of Midwives, to demonstrate to the Government that they can also commit to legislation to ban hymenoplasty, without the ‘expert panel’ they currently want to undertake.
Finally, I think you should know that not only have I returned from what feels like my first proper period of leave since COVID-19 appeared, I also have a strange ‘back to school’ feeling about my life as your President. From Monday 6 September, our College will start the next phase of reopening our beautiful building at London Bridge. I have gone into the College physically only a handful of times over the past 18 months but this week, in preparation for the reopening, I have spent many days in the office. It is heartening to be back and I look forward to our return to a new normal. This is best symbolised by perhaps the most exciting event on the horizon: a combined Membership and Fellowship ceremony on Thursday 16 September. This will be a much smaller ceremony than normal, but nevertheless will be the first time we have been able to celebrate the achievements of many of you since the start of the pandemic, and the first ceremony in our new home in London Bridge. If you and your family are coming, I very much look forward to seeing you.
Mr Eddie Morris PRCOG
President, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists