Women and Health: Today's Evidence, Tomorrow's Agenda
U.N. World Health Organization
According to a report released on Nov. 9 by the World Health Organization, millions of women die each year from conditions that could be avoided if they were men. Apart from hazards like female infanticide and maternal deaths, women are more likely to contract HIV, suffer from depression and domestic abuse, and lack access to basic health care that could help them survive.
1. On the risks of unprotected sex: "Globally, HIV is the leading cause of death and disease in women of reproductive age. Some studies show that women are more likely than men to acquire HIV from an infected partner during unprotected heterosexual intercourse ... Young women tend to have sex with older men who are more sexually experienced and more likely to be infected with HIV."
2. On domestic abuse: "Studies from Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa and the United States show that between 40% and 70% of female murders were carried out by intimate partners ... In South-East Asia, burns are the third leading cause of death [for adolescent girls and women of reproductive age]. While many are the result of cooking accidents, some are homicides or suicides, often associated with violence by an intimate partner ... Despite the size of the problem, many women do not report their experiences of violence and do not seek help. As a result, violence against women remains a hidden problem with great human and health-care costs."
3. How gender inequality affects treatment: "Because they are less likely to be part of the formal labor market, women lack access to job security and the benefits of social protection, including access to health care. Within the formal workforce, women often face challenges related to their lower status, suffer discrimination and sexual harassment, and have to balance the demands of paid work and work at home, giving rise to work-related fatigue, infections, mental ill-health and other problems."
4. On the exploitation of female health care providers: "The backbone of the health system, women are nevertheless rarely represented in executive or management-level positions, tending to be concentrated in lower-paid jobs and exposed to greater occupational health risks."
5. On addressing sexism in health care: "Lessons can be learned from bold national initiatives that have sought to address social inequality and exclusion in ways that promote gender equality and women's health. For example, Chile's multisectoral and integrated approach to social protection for the poor includes a universal program for early child development. Chile Crece Contigo (Chile Grows with You) includes access to child care, education and health services to help young children achieve their optimal physical, social and emotional development, while enforcing the right of working mothers to nurse their babies and also stimulating women's employment."
The WHO's inaugural cradle-to-grave study on women's health is far from comprehensive, but the U.N. agency can hardly be blamed for it. "The data and evidence that are available are too patchy and incomplete for this to be possible," Margaret Chan, the WHO's director, said in a statement accompanying the report's release. As for the information that is available, far too much of it focuses solely on women's reproductive and sexual health "women are more than mothers," the WHO notes, and they "should be engaged in research as active participants." After all, who better to examine and understand female health issues than women themselves?
The Verdict: Read