Despite progress, health system shortfalls and gender discrimination are severely impacting women’s health worldwide, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) report Women and Health: Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda.
The key findings of this report illuminate the intersection between biological and social determinants of women’s health, as well as the role gender discrimination plays in blocking access to critical care. Sexual and reproductive health concerns are significantly widespread, and illuminate the need for improved maternal health care. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for all women worldwide. Women are particularly vulnerable to HIV infection because they are often not equipped with the education or resources to protect themselves during sex. Pregnancy and childbirth-related complications are the leading causes of death in women aged 15-19 in developing countries. These threats are particularly devastating in the developing world, where 99% of the more than a half million maternal deaths occur each year.
WHO reports that a fair start for girls is essential for the future health of women: improved nutrition for girls will decrease reproductive health complications in the future; preventing child abuse and neglect will enable girls to reach their optimal physical, social and emotional development; and establishing healthy adolescent behaviors around eating habits, smoking and alcohol use will reduce mortality and disability due to cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancers.
Current health system shortfalls, such as high health costs for women, lead to greater instances of death. WHO calls for removing financial barriers to care, accompanied with efforts to ensure that health services are appropriate, acceptable, of high quality and responsive to the needs of girls and women. Additionally, action must be taken to combat societal biases against women.
To combat these alarming trends, WHO calls for policy change and action in the health sector and beyond. Health systems must be made to work for women, not against them, by providing comprehensive, accessible care including antenatal care, mental health services, sexual violence response services and cervical cancer screenings. Finally, policies and strategies must employ a gender equality and right-based approach to make sustainable progress. As stated by the authors of the report, “Addressing women’s health is a necessary and effective approach to strengthening health systems overall – action that will benefit everyone. Improving women’s health matters to women, to their families, communities and societies at large. Improve women’s health – improve the world.”