Gender, women and health

Section 2: Gender-based discrimination limits the attainment of international health and development goals such as the MDGs

Equal rights, equal opportunities: progress for all
International Women's Day - 8 March 2010

Differences in the status of women and men lead to disparate opportunities to claim, benefit from and enjoy human rights, including the right to health. This leads to health inequalities in all countries and poses a major impediment to sustainable development goals, including the Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

MDG 3 aims to reduce gender-based discrimination by promoting gender equality and women's empowerment in critical areas:

  • secondary and tertiary education;
  • gainful and non-agricultural employment;
  • women's participation in political office (through the share of parliamentary seats).

In other words, it aims to promote and protect equal rights and opportunities for women and girls as critical pre-conditions for sustainable development.

These three pre-conditions are also important determinants of health for women and girls:

1. Right to education

Between 15% and 71% of women report physical or sexual violence by a husband or partner and between 4% and 12% report being physically abused during pregnancy.

Worldwide, up to one in five women and one in ten men report experiencing sexual abuse as children. Children who experience sexual abuse are much more likely to encounter other forms of abuse later in life.

The fulfillment of the right to education reduces vulnerability to several health conditions, increases prevention of illness and the ability to protect one's health. Educational attainment in women and girls has been correlated with decreased fertility and smoking rates, increased age of marriage, adequate birth spacing and overall treatment adherence. Yet, multiple household responsibilities, including water collection combined with household poverty and social norms that privilege boys for education deny many girls and young women the chance to attend and complete primary and secondary levels of education. These girls and young women are further deprived of the health benefits education provides. Lower levels of education in many contexts has also been found to increase the risk of sexual and gender-based violence.

2. Right to employment

When women benefit fully from the right to employment, they are more likely to benefit from protective legislation, access to employer-based health insurance and other measures of social protection. In many settings, women are more represented in agricultural labour which tends to be unpaid, undervalued and often confined to informal market activities. When equal opportunities to formal, gainful employment within and beyond the agricultural sector is provided, women generate earnings for themselves and their households. Such economic empowerment often increases their social status, leading to reduced social isolation and exclusion. Concretely, it also means that women are more likely to have a say in the use of household resources - including household spending on health.

3. Right to participate in political positions

Ensuring the right to participate in political positions such as Parliament can have several positive impacts on the health of women and children. An analysis of 75 countries, correlating the Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM) (a composite indicator measuring gender inequality in economic participation and decision-making, political participation and decision-making and power over economic resources) and several health indicators reveal the following: the higher the GEM, the better the health outcomes for infant mortality rate, total fertility rate, under-5 mortality rate, maternal mortality, low-birth weight infant percentage as well as life expectancy for both women and men.

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