A qualitative UK study exploring counterpublic engagement of marginalized women via a Women's Health Network

Health Promot Int. 2022 Aug 1;37(4):daac124. doi: 10.1093/heapro/daac124.

Abstract

Public engagement is at the forefront of health policy and research. The need for engagement with diverse groups and particularly marginalized groups who face increased health inequalities has been recognized. Yet, there is a lack of research that focuses on marginalized women. This article presents data from semi-structured interviews with members of a Women's Health Network (WHN) in Bradford, one of the most deprived areas of England. WHN is a collective of women who aim to improve women and their families' health, with a particular focus on seldom-heard voices. This article critically explores what realistic, representative counterpublic engagement looks like. It reveals the tension between the ideal of public engagement (direct participation) and what happens in practice. Challenges for direct participation of marginalized groups in formal structures require alternative solutions. It is argued that WHN provides an alternative model of counterpublic engagement by bridging the gap between 'seldom-heard' women and healthcare providers. WHN creates and sustains a discursive space between subaltern counterpublics and official public spheres, enabling two-way communication. Furthermore, this article problematizes the terms 'seldom heard' and 'professionals' for assuming homogeneity and masking diversity. It is argued that WHN's bridging model of subaltern counterpublic engagement is successful at amplifying women's voices and promoting women's health because of the network's diverse membership and reach. This diversity enables the authentic representation of varied communities and the discursive movement of issues relating to women's health. WHN thus offers a transferable model of counterpublic engagement in the absence of direct participation.

Keywords: PPI; community development; marginalized populations; public engagement; women.

Plain language summary

Public engagement in health is at the forefront of policy and research. The need for engagement with diverse and particularly marginalized groups who face increased health inequalities has been recognized in recent years. Yet, there is a lack of research that focuses on women and particularly marginalized women. This article presents data from semi-structured interviews with members of the Women’s Health Network (WHN) in Bradford, one of the most deprived areas of England. WHN is a collective of women who aim to improve the health and well-being of women and their families, with a particular focus on seldom-heard voices. It explores how engagement of marginalized women and their communities occurs in practice, with this network of public, statutory, voluntary and community services, functioning as a bridge that connects local marginalized women and professional services. It is acknowledged that direct participation of marginalized women is limited, but that despite this, WHN’s bridging model of public engagement is successful at amplifying lesser heard women’s voices by providing a two-way channel of communication between marginalized women and healthcare professionals. The diversity of WHN’s membership is central to enabling the real representation of marginalized women and their communities.

MeSH terms

  • Female
  • Health Personnel
  • Health Policy*
  • Humans
  • Qualitative Research
  • United Kingdom
  • Women's Health*