Health Horizons

By Brundtland, Gro Harlem | Harvard International Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Health Horizons


Brundtland, Gro Harlem, Harvard International Review


Abstract:

For a long time, it has been evident in the health service sector that many of the major determinants of women's health lie outside the health system, that poverty is a major cause of women's ill-health, and that ill-health perpetuates a cycle of poverty. The international community must recognize that the interaction of gender and poverty constitutes one of the greatest limiting factors to health and human development. For that reason, the health concerns must be addressed within the context of sustainable development, including the provision of education and information, sufficient food and decent housing, as well as healthy environments. Women's health depends upon respect for women's basic human rights.

Text:

Women's Health Policy and Development

For a long time it has been evident in the health service sector that many of the major determinants of women's health lie outside the health system, that poverty is the major cause of women's ill-health, and that ill-health perpetuates a cycle of poverty. The international community must recognize that the interaction of gender and poverty, constitutes one of the greatest limiting factors to health and human development. For this reason, we-as members of the global community-must address health concerns within the context of sustainable development, including the provision of education and information, sufficient food and decent housing, as well as healthy environments. "omen's health depends upon respect for women's basic human rights.

These rights clearly have not been respected. General neglect of human rights is often coupled with the abuse of women's human rights, creating stark inequities. According to the World Bank, 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty are women; of the world's 900 million illiterate people, women outnumber men 2 to 1; and world-Ade, women are paid 30 to 40 percent less than men for comparable work. The health of women is therefore inseparably linked to poverty and illiteracy.

This combination of poverty, illiteracy, and low wages has a devastating impact on women's vulnerability to disease. Ill health thrives on poverty and on the absence of information and education. Diseases will only recede when women can freely acquire knowledge and organize themselves against health threats. From infancy to old age, women's health is a function of their social status-the more they suffer from social discrimination, the more likely they are to suffer from ill health.

From the Start

Discrimination takes many forms. Parents may neglect unwanted daughters. This neglect continues in the home, in schools and workplaces, as well as in hospitals and health clinics. In childhood, discrimination manifests itself in inadequate nutrition which can later impair intellectual capabilities, delay puberty, and stunt growth. In many countries, women and girls are the last to eat and are usually given smaller portions. Female genital mutilation, performed on 2 million girls every year, causes unnecessary suffering, disease, reproductive complications, and even death. In some countries, vaccination programs favor young boys over young girls.

In adolescence, the inadequate nutrition of earlier years leads to learning problems among girls with iron-deficiency anemia. In addition, the lack of family planning and reproductive health education results in increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV-AIDS, early pregnancies and motherhood, and unsafe abortions, The bodies of adolescent girls are not physically prepared for childbirth, yet in many developing countries one-third to one-half of all women become mothers before their twentieth birthday.

The impact of the discrimination of earlier years becomes especially evident in the aftermath of childbirth. According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) 1998 Health Report, approximately 585,000 women, most of whom live in developing countries, die each year from pregnancy-related causes due to the lack of basic prenatal care.

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