Lorraine RamirezToday’s guest blogger is Lorraine Ramirez, MPH, coordinator for the Rural Women's Health Network in Phoenix, Arizona, and a member of the APHA Women’s Caucus. She shares what her organization is doing and how we can all pitch in to help meet the needs of rural women during the pandemic.

When compared to their urban counterparts, rural women have shorter life expectancies, experience more incidents of violence and content with a greater lack of access to a range of health care and other services close to home. 

Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened those inequities. We’re seeing increased sexual and domestic violence, economic hardship and adverse health effects due to shifting priorities to child care and job security. 

What can we do?

  • Include women and women-based organizations in the planning of and conversations around COVID-19 response.
  • When collecting data and conducting research, be sure to include data on women’s race and ethnicity.
  • Extend and enhance child care services to be accessible for women in rural areas and women with low incomes.
  • Continue food programs in schools for children.
  • Expand paid family and sick leave.
  • Provide tools and resources for unpaid caregivers.
  • Invest in the infrastructure and public services in rural areas.
  • Designate domestic and sexual violence shelters as essential services. 

Public health professionals working in rural communities are well aware of the health disparities linked to the lack of physicians, limited services, underinsured and uninsured populations, age and income. And we know some populations are more vulnerable than others. Native Americans are experiencing a disproportionate toll on their health and economy, for example, with the pandemic exacerbating existing inequities.

Yet rural communities are well-connected, resourceful and have made positive efforts to protect their health. Some of the programs that assist rural women in Arizona have included mutual aid efforts across Native land to provide handwashing stations and masks, the expansion of telehealth programs throughout the state and community health centers that offer COVID-19 testing and provide services through a sliding-scale fees. Some community health centers are adding virtual support groups for domestic violence victims. 

We at the Arizona Rural Women’s Health Network focus on providing services and resources to health professionals that allow them to address health concerns and disparities that rural women face in Arizona. Though our work is in Arizona, we hope our efforts can guide others across the country to optimize opportunities provided to rural women. 

The pandemic has added urgency to our mission. Women in rural areas already face barriers in accessing health care services due to the lack of resources and providers in their community. With COVID-19, women are less likely to seek services, including sexual and reproductive health services, especially when non-emergency services have been postponed to limit the exposure of COVID-19. 

This is particularly concerning because, in addition to maintaining their own health, women are often responsible for the mental, emotional and physical health of their families. As such, women in rural settings face special challenges as a result of the significant health intermediary role that they play. 

We know women are key influencers of health in their families and communities. Please join our continued work to achieve health equity. Here are a few resources to help guide our efforts: