What if you didn’t have the words to tell your doctor what was bothering you? What if what was bothering you was considered taboo in your culture—something that you aren’t supposed to talk about, even with your doctor? And what if the fact that you can’t talk openly about this topic cost you your life?
This is the case for many women in indigenous rural Mexican communities, where the most common cause of death among women is cervical cancer—a type of cancer that is both treatable and preventable, but only if women are properly educated about it and only if women feel comfortable enough to discuss the matter with their doctors.
Armed with an understanding of this unique challenge, Procter & Gamble’s Always recently took home the Grand Prix for Health/Wellness at Cannes Health Lions for a campaign aimed at fighting cervical cancer among women in indigenous rural Mexican communities. In these communities, where the language Zapotec, an Oto-Manguean language of Mexico is spoken, the parts of a women’s body are not assigned terms. It is considered taboo to use anatomical words to talk about female body parts or even internal reproductive organs. These communities feel it is inappropriate to use words like vagina, cervix, or fallopian tube. Obviously, this creates a significant barrier to being able to appropriately diagnose and treat reproductive health issues, including cervical cancer.
The team at Procter & Gamble designed a campaign called “Intimate Words” that involved creating a book featuring phrases to describe different parts of a woman’s body that the women would feel comfortable using. For example, uterus = baby’s house, ovary = women’s seed, fallopian tubes = human’s seed path, vagina = where couples meet, and cervix = baby’s home door. The idea is that women will pass these books down from generation to generation to properly educate women of the community about serious health issues.
As a health communicator, I find this problem fascinating and the solution presented in the campaign rather ingenious. Clearly, communication is of profound interest to me, but what I often find even more interesting are the ways we don’t (or in this case, can’t) communicate effectively. When someone doesn’t have a way of communicating important information about his or her health, the results can be catastrophic.
I applaud Procter & Gamble’s effort to identify a communication gap and effectively devise a way to bridge that gap. This campaign has brought to my attention the real difficulty women of many cultures have with discussing very private health issues. Health care providers must find a way to break down those barriers and find ways to communicate with their female patients.
The “Intimate Words” campaign is a smart idea that is garnering praise for its originality, but it’s also about more than that. It’s a real solution that can be replicated in other areas of health. I hope that providers and others in the industry may use this idea as a jumping off point for future communication tools.