Self-care in women’s health

25 Feb 21

Self-care Importance of self-care | Improves health | Empower women | MSF & self-care | Project Integration

We all want the power to invest in our wellbeing—to be able to take care of our emotional, physical and mental health. But without reliable information and appropriate tools, reasonable options and adequate support, it’s not always possible. Self-care is changing the face of healthcare. It focuses on equipping and entrusting people to take a central role in their own health. For women, this can involve an important shift to being able to make decisions about their own care, when they may not have had this autonomy before.

What is self-care?

In our programmes, MSF too has seen how self-care can improve healthcare access and quality. This International Women’s Day we want to share what self-care can achieve to empower women and girls in crisis-affected communities to enjoy healthier lives, just like women anywhere else in the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care as “the ability of individuals, families and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a health-care provider.”

As a medical-humanitarian organisation, MSF is adopting self-care within a patient-centred approach, supporting people with the knowledge and skills to undertake self-care safely but retain access to formal health services when they need or wish.

Self-care includes:

  • Self-management of medication, treatment, examination, injection and administration
  • Self-testing ranging from sampling and screening to diagnosis, collection and monitoring
  • Self-awareness, spanning self-help, self-education, self-regulation, self-efficacy and self-determination.

Illustration of women from various contexts and lived experiences, who all might seek self-care.

Self-care is not about people having to do all their own healthcare without support; it is about entrusting people to manage parts of their own healthcare if they choose to do so.

Simplified tests and treatments, point-of-care devices and mobile technology have all made self-care more possible in recent years—with great potential benefit for women and girls.

Why is self-care important for women?

Globally, many women still do not have access to essential healthcare, and struggle with managing sexual and reproductive health issues that may be stigmatised. 

Close to one in four women of reproductive age still has no access to modern contraception, to help her plan or limit her pregnancies. Just over half the people aged over 15 living with HIV around the world are women. Unsafe abortion remains a major cause of death in pregnant women globally who are unable to access a safe alternative.

Illustration of a woman holding a blister pack of the oral contraceptive pill.

The many social, economic, logistical and other barriers to accessing healthcare can be compounded by violence and discrimination. The situation is also aggravated in acute humanitarian crises.

Now, Covid-19 has amplified the health service discrepancies in these settings, worsening sexual and reproductive health outcomes. And while lockdowns have been instigated to keep us safe, they have also increased the danger for some women at home.

Illustration of women and girls travelling along a long road, with a healthcare facility in the distance.

In such circumstances, the obstacles can be so great that women will neither come nor ask for care, even if they need it.

Self-care is an opportunity to address this, as recognised by the WHO with its first ever self-care intervention guidelines in 2019, developed specifically for sexual and reproductive health.

view our self-care tips >

How does self-care improve healthcare and health? 

Self-care can expand access to healthcare in remote locations, unstable contexts or areas with poor health infrastructure. It can extend healthcare outside the hospital or the clinic, beyond the doctor or the nurse. It can be a pragmatic response where healthcare resources are stretched, but also enable links to care where they didn’t exist before.  

Let’s empower women and girls by trusting that given the right information and tools, they can engage in their own self-care to stay healthy, no matter where they live

Illustration of a breast self-examination.

Self-care interventions can deliver evidence-based and low-risk healthcare options directly and discreetly in the community or people’s individual homes—like self-injectable contraception.

Offering more convenience or more confidentiality, self-care approaches can enable early diagnosis and more timely medical care—like HIV self-testing.

Through focusing on a woman’s individual needs, they can also improve the quality of care that she receives: care that is appropriate, respectful and built on trust.

Illustration of a woman holding a “how-to” guide to self-swabbing for human papillomavirus as a screening measure to prevent cervical cancer.

For some women, self-care may be the only safe alternative, without which they may be forced to seek unsafe services, or give up hope of care altogether. In the case of self-managed medication abortion to prevent an unsafe one, self-care can be lifesaving.

How can women be empowered through self-care? 

Self-care empowers women because it gives them access to information and services that allow them to decide on what works best for them. Women gain choices, and autonomy.   

Illustration of a trained peer educator talking with women in her community about self-care.

Self-care also allows women to help and take care of others in their community, by sharing reliable information peer-to-peer, delivering care as community health workers, and engaging with people within the same lived experience and health needs.

How is MSF supporting self-care? 

In MSF, we’re currently building capacity for self-care as part of a patient-centred approach to healthcare. As the evidence base grows, we’re continuing to trial different interventions, to understand what works, for whom. We know that often it is communities that can lead the way, and no model is one-size-fits-all.

Whatever the self-care option, we will always ensure that women have access to a trained health worker when they want or need one, and can be referred to the next treatment step without delay.

llustration of a patient (right) receiving support from a medical professional.

This is extremely important, as self-care should not substitute for formal healthcare. It needs to be part of the continuum of care from the formal health system through to community-based models of care. It needs to add value, not stand in as second best for people otherwise excluded from care.

MSF has always innovated to overcome exclusion, and with women and girls as our partners we have the exciting opportunity to innovate some more.  

Where is MSF integrating self-care into its projects? 

In Ituri Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo, we’ve introduced the self-injectable, long-acting contraceptive known by its trademark Sayana Press. Long-acting contraceptive injections have been available in our clinics before, but now women can manage the injections themselves.

Illustration of a woman holding a self-injectable contraceptive device.

With guidance on how to handle a needle safely, and instruction on self-injecting by the clinical staff, women can take away up to four devices at a time to self-inject at home every three months.

This ensures access to highly effective contraception for up to a year without repeat visits to the clinic, which may be simply time-consuming, or difficult in this conflict-affected area.  

Sayana Press can be stored at room temperature and is easy to carry, which is helpful in this area where women and girls are often forced on the move. Women in Ituri like its simplicity and ease of use. About 3,000 doses of Sayana Press were provided to women in MSF projects in Angumu, Nizi and Drodro during 2020.

MSF’s HIV and TB prevention and treatment programme

In Shiselweni district in Eswatini, we’ve been offering oral HIV self-testing in our HIV and TB prevention and treatment programme since May 2017. Eswatini has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world.

Nationwide investment in comprehensive services has reduced transmission, but there is still considerable stigma attached to HIV, often associated with social inequality.

Many women in our programme have taken up the oral self-test; with a wait time of just 20 minutes for the results, they can test reliably once a month in the comfort of their home.

Illustration of a woman performing an oral self-test for HIV.

Knowledge is power, and for women, knowing their HIV status means they can take control of their own health

They’re also motivated to go further: if they are at particularly high risk, to take up pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP); or encourage others to test, or take medication.

And if they face the challenge of a positive test result, our counsellors can support them, in person or via our hotline, to self-manage and continue their lives on antiretroviral treatment.

Sexual and reproductive health project for female sex workers

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In MSF’s HIV, tuberculosis and sexual and reproductive health project for female sex workers in Malawi, which ran from 2014 to 2020, self-care was central to a peer-led model. 

Female sex workers in Malawi experience especially high rates of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, as well as sexual and gender-based violence, but face multiple obstacles to healthcare.

Like sex workers in many other parts of the world, they’re disadvantaged by low social and economic status, discrimination and criminalisation. In Malawi we faced this head on by involving them directly in our comprehensive package of care.

Female sex workers joined the project to be trained as peer educators and community health workers. Their activities touched on all three pillars of self-care: self-awareness, through promoting self-education for example; self-testing, via home tests for HIV and other conditions; and self-management, including prevention of unwanted pregnancy after unprotected intercourse or sexual violence.

An MSF community health worker Adeline (not her real name) conducts a health promotion session with a sex worker community ART group.

This allowed female sex workers to have confidential access to information, care and other support around-the-clock from women like them, who understood their lives and their challenges. The community health workers then linked the women to the nearest ‘one-stop’ clinic for treatment and further support if necessary.

At the end of 2020, MSF handed over its activities to the Ministry of Health and several recently created sex worker community-based organisations lead by sex workers previously employed as community health workers by MSF in Malawi.

Mental health project for victims of violence

In Nablus, Palestine, our specialised mental health project for people with moderate to severe mental illness and victims of violence treats children to adults, among them victims of domestic violence.

MSF provides psychotherapy in Nablus.

Last year, as COVID-19 lockdowns restricted movement in communities around the world, women in Nablus were suddenly trapped at home, with no escape.

The only way we could reach them and continue our support was to pivot to tele-counselling—something new for our therapists and patients alike.

Evidence soon emerged worldwide that intimate partner violence was increasing in the pandemic. The situation in Nablus was no different and, concerningly, the abuse increased in severity as well, putting women’s safety at greater risk.

But as testament to the women’s resilience, they adapted, and innovated. They worked with their therapists to develop safety plans; they established self-care regimes to help reduce their anxiety when things were calm; they chose code words to warn that their partner could overhear the counselling call.

Illustration of a woman having her head massaged.

In fact fewer women dropped out of counselling than was the norm before.

Once lockdowns eased, although numbers were restricted, it was important to be able to see the highest priority patients face-to-face again. But COVID-19 has shown that tele-counselling can be feasible and effective, and can be offered in addition to face-to-face therapy as another pathway to care.

Cervical cancer prevention and early treatment programme

In Gutu district in Zimbabwe last year, our cervical cancer prevention and early treatment programme with the Zimbabwean Ministry of Health and Child Care was the springboard for a trial comparing women self-swabbing for human papillomavirus infection versus being swabbed by a nurse.

Rumbidzai, 51, was assisted by MSF after abnormalities were found during her VIAC screening. Chatikobo district, Zimbabwe.

Without better access to cervical cancer prevention, women in high prevalence countries like Zimbabwe continue to face a premature death.

The screening method known as Visual Inspection with Acetic Acid, the mainstay of our programme and others like it, needs human resources, training and equipment that can limit its roll-out.

What if the simpler high vaginal swab to collect an HPV DNA sample could be effectively conducted not only by nurses, but the women themselves? It could significantly expand access to diagnosis for women unable to access healthcare workers or clinics.

Illustration of a woman smiling.

The trial found nurses and lay patients equally effective in collecting a sample. Most women found the self-collection procedure comfortable; and almost all would recommend self-collection for HPV testing to a friend.

We look forward to delving more into the preferences of women and nurses in participating in this care.

MSF’s remote support service for safe abortion

In sexual and reproductive health, safe abortion is the most restricted of all care. But thanks to medication abortion and its regimen of pills taken over 24 hours, termination of pregnancy has not only been simplified, it can be available in the privacy of a woman or girl’s own home.

Illustration of a woman holding the medication for a self-managed abortion.

In MSF’s experience, self-managed abortion can be managed in several ways. In MSF’s remote support service, women can come to the health facility for an assessment and to receive the drugs and instructions for use; be remotely counselled and emotionally supported through the abortion until the process is complete; and only need to visit the facility again if they have a (rare) complication or any concern.

They will also receive family planning advice, and the contraceptive of their choice. Or they can be assessed and supported remotely, receiving the medication separately.

Illustration of pregnant women and their partners, during a prenatal care session.

Depending on the context, this is a game-changer for unmarried women, victims of rape, displaced women, and any other woman who has an unwanted pregnancy and wishes to manage it privately. Women tell us this, and tell each other.

The next step is to continue to adapt the service and make it more accessible, through toll-free hotlines and home delivery of the medication and instructions, for example.

There is great potential to expand quality, patient-centred care for women and girls through self-care approaches, especially in contexts where MSF works: places affected by an acute crisis, or hard to reach.

Self-care should always be linked to more formal care, but it can play a particularly useful role where there is little health infrastructure or few health workers, or marginalised people needing care outside of a formal system.

Illustration of a woman accessing self-care through a mobile app.

From our experience in such settings, working with health authorities, local organisations and grassroots communities, we believe much can be achieved to build the capacity to integrate self-care, and allow women and girls to contribute to their own health and wellbeing.

Let’s empower women and girls by trusting that given the right information and tools, they can engage in their own self-care to stay healthy, no matter where they live.

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