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Understanding women's health

Nov 10, 2009

World Health Organisation’s latest report Women and Health: Today's Evidence Tomorrow's Agenda, reveals that violence and gender inequalities leave women and girls, especially those of reproductive age, more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. It champions the need for policy action and greater women’s participation in healthcare.

Women and Health: Today's Evidence Tomorrow's Agenda

Publisher: World Health Organisation, 2009

In a landmark report on the health of women and girls across the globe, the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that AIDS-related illness is the leading cause of death and disease among women of reproductive age in low and middle income countries, particularly in Africa.


Also, globally, unsafe sex is the single leading risk factor contributing to deaths among women of reproductive age. These findings in the report show that in a multiplicity of areas female health is neglected and must now be considered an urgent priority.

The report maintains that women and girls are especially vulnerable to HIV infection due to a variety of biological and social factors. These include low socio-economic status that can limit choices and lead to high risk behaviours and norms and laws that subjugate women and which discourage them from seeking and obtaining the information they need to keep themselves safe.

For example, globally only 38% of young women are able to describe the main ways to avoid infection and they are less likely to know that condoms can protect against HIV than young men. Data from 16 countries in sub-Saharan Africa from 2001-2007 also show that HIV prevalence is generally higher among adolescent girls aged 15-19 than their male counterparts.

A significant cause of this is young girls partnering with older men who are more sexually experienced and more likely to be infected.

Violence against women

Violence against women is also a major cause of their increased vulnerability to HIV. It can make it difficult or impossible for them to control their sexual lives, abstain from sex or get their partners to use condoms.

Gender inequalities

As the report contends, gender inequalities in the allocation of resources such as education, income, health care, nutrition and having a political voice are very much associated with poor health and reduced well-being.

“Despite considerable progress over the past two decades, societies are still failing women at key moments in their lives,” says Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, in the foreword to Women and Health.

Key stages relevant for health: early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older age.

The report explores the lives of women and girls through key stages relevant for health: early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and older age, and shows that women face “widespread and persistent inequities” during each of these stages.

By using today’s evidence, the report attempts to set out tomorrow’s agenda, a key element of which is championing reforms to enable women to not only be seen in their sexual and reproductive capacity, but to become active agents in health-care provision, playing a central role in the design, management and delivery of health services.

The document draws attention to four areas where policy action could make a real difference to women’s health: building strong leadership and a coherent institutional response coalescing around a clear agenda; making health systems work for women; leveraging changes in public policy to encourage fundamental social change (through, for instance, targeted action to help girls enrol in school); and finally, building the knowledge base and monitoring progress.

WHO hopes that by reviewing the available data and charting a cogent way forward that the health of women and girls, and society as a whole, can be ameliorated. As the report has it, “Improve women’s health, improve the world.”

Source : WHO
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