Cultural shame is stopping many women of colour from attending cervical screening appointments

Cervical cancer is just one of the many health disparities disproportionally impacting BAME women, who face higher mortality rates than white women. 

According to Cancer Research, if all women regularly attended a cervical ‘smear’ screening, 83% of cervical cancer cases could be prevented. ‘Smear tests’ are currently available to anyone in the UK with a cervix between the ages of 25 to 64. Yet, according to Public Health England, smear test attendance rates have fallen to a twenty-year low.

There are clear discrepancies in the screening uptake and awareness amongst BAME women. The UK’S leading cervical screening charity, Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, found that, on the whole, women of colour are less likely to attend a cervical screening than their white counterparts. Furthermore, compared to 91% of white women aged 20-65, 70% of Asian women understood that screenings check cells from the cervix to find pre-cancerous abnormalities. And only 28% of BAME women would be comfortable talking to a male GP about cervical screening.

For many women of colour, getting a smear test can be a source of shame, especially if they’re from more conservative cultures. According to a Department for Health report, embarrassment was one of the most common reasons amongst all women for having never attended or missing appointments.

‘I always assumed that going for a cervical smear test meant I was overly sexually active, which is taboo in the south Asian community,’ Karishma, a 28-year-old marketing manager from London, told GLAMOUR. ‘The thought of going for a screening used to fill me with dread because I feared being judged. I really didn’t want my family to find out.’

Female sexuality is taboo in many conservative cultures, so any discussion around female anatomy is non-existent. For instance, growing up in the South Asian community, sex is discussed as an act reserved for after marriage to reproduce, not for pleasure. As well as this, sex education and learning about periods is often left to school and is not a discussion you’d have with your parents, leaving many questions unanswered.

So, regarding smear tests, discussing them may feel sexually deviant due to cultural stigma and the fear of being judged by the community. Nevertheless, this lack of conversation is harmful as it hinders women from being aware of and accessing vital life-saving services like smear tests.

Similarly, when Zennah, a 26-year-old support worker from Lincoln, told her mother she intended to go for a screening, she warned her against going. She continues, “as a Muslim woman, pre-marriage, your hymen is considered precious, and my mother believed that somehow getting a cervical smear would impact that. Luckily now I have every intention of getting screened.”

Dr Preethi Daniel, clinical director and GP at London Doctors Clinic, explains to GLAMOUR, “the reasons for the low uptake of cervical smear screening among BAME women are multifactorial, with reasons being either cognitive, emotional, or practical.” She continues, “but generally, screenings have a wider cultural stigma as going for a screening implies promiscuity, which is one of the reasons why it feels taboo to even speak about it.”

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