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Why the Women’s Institute are focusing on cervical screening

Posted on: Monday, 13th January 2020 by Alexandra Barker, National Federation of Women’s Institutes

In June this year, the WI launched 5 Minutes that Matter - a national campaign to raise awareness of the importance of cervical screening and call for action that will make the test more accessible. 

As the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK, our 210,000 members across England, Wales and the Islands are taking action in their own communities to challenge myths about the test and encourage health services to remove barriers to screening.

"This isn’t the first time that cervical screening has been at the forefront of the WI’s national agenda"

WI 5 minutes that matterLike all WI campaigns, it stems directly from the membership. During a year-long process, resolutions are proposed, debated, and voted on by members. This year, with cervical screening rates at a 21-year low, members overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling for action at the WI’s 2019 Annual Meeting. 

This isn’t the first time that cervical screening has been at the forefront of the WI’s national agenda. In 1964, the WI passed a resolution calling on the NHS to provide comprehensive and routine smear tests for all women. Though screening facilities did exist at the time, they were hugely under-used. 

Increasing awareness of the availability of the test among medical professionals and women was therefore a really important part of the WI’s campaign in the 1960’s. Ultimately, the national attention surrounding the issue led to the introduction of the National Cervical Cytology Screening Service in 1966. 

Over the next 20 years, recognising that many women were still likely not being offered routine screening, WI members pushed forward with the campaign, and in 1983 the NFWI partnered with the Women’s National Control Campaign to carry out the first major study of women’s experiences of cervical screening. This research revealed that out of 9,000 women who took part, 65% said their doctor had never asked them if they would like to be screened. 

Subsequently, the WI called for more public information on screening facilities and an effective recall system to make sure that everyone who is eligible receives an invitation to attend – something which was later introduced in 1988.

"Education remains at the heart of the WI’s campaigning on cervical screening"

Today, education remains at the heart of the WI’s campaigning on cervical screening and we’re delighted to be working with Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to raise awareness of the facts behind the test. We know that WIs have a unique place in their community which allows them to reach thousands of people who could benefit from this potentially life-saving test and the expert support Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust provides. 

Cervical screening isn’t easy for everyone, and that will undoubtedly be reflected in the experiences of WI members. While only part of the problem, we do know that myths surrounding the test and HPV (the human papillomavirus) still likely discourage some women, who may otherwise attend, from taking up their invitations. 

That’s why this Cervical Cancer Prevention Week (20th – 26th January 2020), we’ll be supporting Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust to challenge these potentially harmful myths and reduce the confusion around cervical screening and HPV. 

"Help us reach more women"

There are lots of ways WI members can get involved, from retweeting our posts on social media during the week to help us reach more women and sharing our myth-busting leaflet at your January meetings, to organising an out of hours cervical screening event for women to find out more about the test if you work in healthcare. 

If you’re taking part, we’d love to hear from you! Email the NFWI’s Public Affairs Department at [email protected].

We’ll also be conducting research in the New Year, which will be open to all women, into personal experiences of cervical screening and attitudes towards strategies designed to improve uptake. If you’re interested in taking part, please get in touch using the email address above. 

More information 

  • The WI is the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the UK with approximately 210,000 members in 6,400 WIs. It plays a unique role in enabling women to develop new skills, giving them opportunities to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities, and provides wide-ranging activities for members to get involved in. 
  • For further information about the WI and the 5 Minutes that Matter campaign, please visit