The discrimination that women suffer in the context of their health must be considered as form of violence perpetrated against them and must end.

Cervical Cancer: a violation of the human rights of women

25 November 2020
Dr Padmini Murthy and Dr Bettina Pfeiderer

Dr Padmini Murthy, Global Health Director New York Medical College School of Public Health
Dr Bettina Pfleiderer, Professor at the University of Muenster, Cognition & Gender

Cervical cancer is a gendered disease. According to a report released by the World Health Organization in 2018, there were an estimated 570 000 women diagnosed with cervical cancer and 311,000 related deaths. More than 90% of cervical cancer mortality is in low- and mid-income countries.

This mortality could be reduced if every woman had the same human right to participate in screening programmes. Unfortunately, women in many societies worldwide are being marginalised due to their socio-economic status and therefore do not have access to these services. Research has shown that "less educated women, older women, uninsured women, homeless women, migrant women facing language barriers, women who have sex with women and obese women participate in Pap smears less frequently." [1] 

Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), ratified by 169 national governments or Member States of the United Nations, clearly outlines “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health”. This of course encompasses women’s health and wellbeing, including sexual health, but these rights are not being realised in many countries. 

As the world marks today the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the discrimination and prejudice of which they are victims, often internalised by women themselves and with potentially deadly consequences, must be considered as a form of violence perpetrated against women – and it must end. 

Actions needed to reduce cervical cancer risk

Cervical cancer is a highly preventable and treatable disease by vaccination against human papillomavirus (HPV), regular screening and early detection. It is thus most important to develop community campaigns on a national and local level tailored to the subgroups of women who are at highest risk and to reduce the existing gendered health inequalities that are present. Not only girls but boys as well as must be vaccinated against HPV so that they do not infect women with the virus. Education is key, as educated women and mothers then become the main drivers of change.
The measures mentioned above need to be integrated in the global strategy for cervical cancer elimination as part of the global commitment in the 2013–2020 Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases

Role of the medical community

Top-down governmental or global approaches will not be successful in a sustainable way if it is not combined with successful bottom-up measures involving, for example, local medical communities and health experts. Often female physicians are trusted caregivers in their regions and are well-suited to spearhead and coordinate vaccination and screening programmes.

To facilitate this process, medical knowledge about cervical cancer combined with gender and human rights aspects need to be taught at medical schools and medical specialist training. International global networks of female physicians such as the Medical Women´s International Association (MWIA) should play a major role in this endeavor. 

As a global society, we cannot continue with this human rights violation that contributes to women dying of a preventable and treatable disease.  MWIA and UICC members need to join forces and to build upon civil society understanding and skills in tackling this issue.


[1] Branković, Ivan et al. “Applying a gender lens on human papillomavirus infection: cervical cancer screening, HPV DNA testing, and HPV vaccination.” International journal for equity in health vol. 12 14. 8 Feb. 2013, doi:10.1186/1475-9276-12-14

Prof. Dr. Padmini Murthy, MD, MPH, FRSPH, , Global Health Director New York Medical College School of Public Health, Secretary General Medical Women’s International association

Prof. Dr. Padmini Murthy, MD, MPH, FRSPH is a physician activist, author, professor, and serves as Global Health Director at the New York Medical College School of Public Health and as Secretary General Medical Women’s International Association. She has contributed to book chapters, peer-reviewed journals, op-eds, blogs and electronic media. She is the editor of two books on health which have been used as reference books globally. She has made over 150 presentations on areas of women’s health and is often invited to speak as an expert nationally in the US and internationally and serves as NGO representative to the United Nations. She currently serves as Chair of the International Health Section of the American Public Health Association.


Prof. Dr. Dr. Prof Bettina Pfleiderer MD, PhD, Professor of the medical faculty University of Muenster, Research group Cognition & Gender © Ulrike Dammann

Prof. Dr. Dr. Prof Bettina Pfleiderer MD, PhD is a German physician, human rights activist and a global health expert. She serves as Professor at the medical faculty of the University of Muenster, Research group Cognition & Gender and is Past president Medical Women’s International Association. She has contributed to book chapters and published many peer-reviewed journals. The focus of her work is on gender sensitive health, gendered domestic violence and global health issues. She has given numerous invited talks on these issues internationally and served as president of the Medical Women's International Association from 2016-2019. 

Last update: 
Tuesday 8 June 2021