Gender, women and health

Gender or women's health: why should WHO work on this?

Women and men united to end violence against women and girls
International Women's Day 2009

WHO role as an advocate for gender equality and women’s health

WHO/Chris de Bode

A gender approach enables a deeper understanding of the factors that affect the health of women

These two areas cannot be separated. A gender approach enables a deeper understanding of the factors that affect the health of women. In most societies, gender inequalities historically have disadvantaged women relative to men producing unequal power relations.

Up until 30 years ago, work on women's health was limited to the physiology and pathology of women’s reproductive systems. Adopting a gender approach has broadened the field of women’s health to include the broad range of health conditions that affect women (beyond sexual and reproductive health) and throughout the life course. Cardiovascular disease (CVD), for example, is now understood to affect women in significant ways, at different ages, and in ways that are different to men. The identification of gender-based differences in CVD has enabled more effective and efficient health promotion and prevention strategies that have improved women’s health outcomes in many countries.

A gender approach has enabled the identification of determinants of women’s health and the setting of women’s health priorities across disciplines around the world. Rather than creating vertical programmes on women’s health, it fosters a cross-cutting method for systematically addressing women’s health needs across the board, and over the life course. Some of the identified determinants of women's health include:

  • reduced opportunities for education and paid employment
  • lower social status in families, communities and society
  • limited access to, and control over resources
  • limited decision-making power
  • increased vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence due to unequal gender norms
  • a lower value placed on women's health and lives outside of reproductive years

Lack of attention to these determinants has led to a systematic devaluation and neglect of women’s health. For example, within households, girls and boys, women and men often do not receive equal recognition or treatment with regard to nutrition and health care. Norms and values that lead to societal acceptance of violence against women or control over women’s reproduction and sexuality contribute to a range of reproductive and sexual health conditions for women.

An organization devoted to examining and correcting gender inequalities and promoting health equity will, in practice, find itself active as an advocate for women’s health. For these reasons, WHO has a special role as an advocate for gender equality and women’s health from various dimensions and in many circumstances.

Share