Being a man or a woman has a significant impact on health, as a result of both biological and gender-related differences. The health of women and girls is of particular concern because, in many societies, they are disadvantaged by discrimination rooted in socio-cultural factors.
Women make up about 49.6% of the world population and even though they have a slightly higher life expectancy than men globally, in terms of health, women are mostly placed in a disadvantaged position.
The term women’s health is often a shortened form of women s reproductive health. This is because biologically, the main point of divergence of interest between the health of both gender is in the reproductive system. In view of the societal issues affecting women, there are increasing advocates to expand this term to mean women’s health in totality, including the mental health of women.
Why is women’s health important?
Traditionally, women have been described as the weaker sex and so have been victims of discrimination and several inequities. This disparity is often deeply rooted in religious, social, and cultural beliefs. A result of this has shown that women are under served in their access to important determinants of health like education, and paid employment opportunities. This has made diseases of poverty to be more prevalent in women, especially those in rural areas.
Secondly, the unequal power relationships between men and women, while restricting their access to important privileges, have also made women to be more vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse than men. The WHO reports that gender specific risk factors for common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women include gender based violence, socioeconomic disadvantage, low income and income inequality, low or subordinate social status and rank and unremitting responsibility for the care of others. Some of these mental disorders are depression and anxiety.
Thirdly, as a consequence of women being erroneously treated as reproductive objects, they are more prone to sexual violence and exploitation with increased vulnerability to resultant diseases like HIV/AIDS, Sexually transmitted diseases, physical traumas from rape, and post-traumatic stress disorders as a consequence of these sexual misdeeds.
Fourthly, there is also an urgent need to address the health of women in regards to childbirth. Pregnancy, and childbirth are important periods in the woman’s life which must be safeguarded as much as possible. According to the UNICEF, over 800 women die each day from complications in pregnancy and childbirth. And for every woman who dies, approximately 20 others suffer serious injuries, infections or disabilities. This number is higher in some low and middle income countries. Reducing the number of women that die from childbirth and its related consequences, including unsafe abortions is one of the targets of the third Sustainable development goal of the UN.
Fifthly, the increase in the prevalence of cancers worldwide also affects women. Breast cancer is the leading cancer in women and second leading cause of cancer deaths in women. Together with the increase in prevalence of other cancers, there is also an increase in the prevalence of gynecological cancers like Endometrial cancer, cervical cancer, and ovarian cancer. This makes it important to pay attention to especially to activities like breast self-examination awareness, immunization, Pap smear, mammogram, and other activities that promote early detection and treatment of these conditions
Sixthly, from a public health perspective, the unique role of women in the family and society makes their health a priority. Women are often the primary care givers of the children, and the health of children depends in so many cases on the health of the mothers. For example, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis, can be transmitted to the children from the mother. Also, treating or preventing some diseases in the women will help prevent it in the infants like neonatal tetanus, some sexually transmitted infections and other infections that might lead to sickness in the new born child.
Lastly, Women as care givers are important also in the healthy growth and development of the child. Some psychologists propose that children that were not given adequate love and attention by their mothers (either biological or adopted) may adjust poorly to the society as they grow. There is also the ‘maternal deprivation syndrome’ which is caused by neglect of a growing child less than 2 years. This will result in the poor growth of the child and a condition called failure to thrive. Generally, interventions aimed at improving women’s health have been reported to also lead to an improvement in the children’s health.