Last week, the World Health Organization unveiled a new publication entitled Women and health: today’s evidence tomorrow’s agenda. While the majority of the report’s findings are not surprising to those in the global public health arena, there is hope among women’s health advocates that the report will draw attention to the unacceptable state of health services for the majority of the world’s women and, in doing so, will serve as a catalyst for change.
In a speech designating the report’s official launching, Director-General of the World Health Organization Dr. Margaret Chan explained her rationale for investigating the state of women’s health. “What gets measured gets done…before taking action on any health problem, we must first take stock”.[i] Before we can convince policymakers to improve the state of women’s health around the world, we need information demonstrating that current health services are inadequate. However, this may prove harder than it seems, as apparently even research about women’s health is neglected. Chan explained, “One of the striking findings of the report is the paucity of statistics on key health issues that affect girls and women, especially in developing countries”.[ii] (Art 2). From this fact it can be inferred that the health of women is such a low priority in many countries that researchers and policymakers do not even consider it necessary to document their health information.
However, from the insufficient data we do have, it is quite apparent that health care for women is inadequate the world over. While women in wealthier countries tend to have better health, as do wealthier women within countries, it is still clear that health services for women need to be improved. Existing services tend to focus primarily on married women, ignoring the needs of unmarried women and adolescents. Similarly, certain services constitute the majority of available care. For example, the report finds prenatal care is much more likely to be provided than care for mental health and sexual violence[iii], both of which are integral to women’s health. The lack of health care services for women is particularly troubling if one considers that women provide the majority of the world’s health care services. The report notes that roughly 80% of all health care and 90% of care for HIV/AIDS-related illness is provided in the home, with the caretakers almost always being women.[iv] How can it be that women provide the majority of health care services, yet receive inadequate care themselves?
The answer is that women do not have a voice. Far too often, women are not present in important policy discussions regarding health care because in many countries the political, social and economic arenas are dominated by men. Without the presence of women in policy discussions, the needs of women and girls are overlooked or deemed unimportant. In her address, Dr. Chan blamed the current poor state of health among the world’s women on, “social attitudes, norms and behaviours and the policies that perpetuate them”.[v] Dr. Chan believes that rather than solely increasing the quantity and quality of health services for women, we must seek to change the social and political circumstances that prevent women from participating in instrumental discussions that determine policy agendas. This would include empowering women through education so that they have the knowledge and the skills to bring about change. As Chan mentioned in her speech, “It’s time to pay girls and women back, to make sure that they get the care and support they need to enjoy a fundamental human right at every moment of their lives, that is their right to health”.[vi] Hopefully the WHO’s report is the first step towards doing so.
[i] “Launch of the report on Women and health: today’s evidence, tomorrow’s agenda”, address by Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, 9 November 2009, available at http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2009/women_health_report_20091109/en/index.html .
[iii] “WHO calls for action beyond the health sector to improve the health of girls and women”, World Health Organization Media Centre, 9 November 2009, Geneva. Available at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2009/women_health_report_20091109/en/ .
[v] “Launch of the report on Women and health: today’s evidence, tomorrow’s agenda”, address by Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, 9 November 2009, available at http://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2009/women_health_report_20091109/en/index.html .