Everyone in the developing world remains more susceptible to poor health because of lack of services, or lack of access to services, and a lack of education and information about health issues. Women have additional vulnerabilities, especially malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy complications, cervical and breast cancer, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and genital mutilation. In many cultures, women are the first to take care of the vulnerable, sick, and dying and the last to receive preventative or life saving treatment. Statistically, one in sixty-one women die during pregnancy or childbirth in developing countries, while in the least developed ones one in seventeen die (Gender Statistics, 2010).

To alleviate these problems, the World Bank’s emphasizes public education programs that promote healthy lifestyles, eliminate gender discrimination in education and access to services, and prioritize the help for young girls. According to the Bank, investments that improve women’s health and nutrition are justified on both economic and humanitarian grounds, because they serve to alleviate poverty and develop human resources.

Maternal health is one of the most important elements in these efforts. The Millennium Development Goals have charged the UN Children’s Education Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organization (WHO) with promoting and monitoring a reduction in maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015. Thanks to these efforts, maternal mortality decreased by 47 percent between 1990 and 2010 (Gender dimension of Millennium Development Goals Report, 2013).  Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest problem with maternal mortality, with 1,100 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, a figure more than twice as high as in any other region. Sadly, the vast majority of maternal deaths are preventable with proper care and intervention.
Reasons for maternal mortality include delays in seeking medical help, transporting pregnant women to health centers, and receiving medical assistance, and may be attributed to social, cultural, religious, and economic factors. For example, a woman may not alter her lifestyle or workload inside and outside the home, because she cannot afford to and because the expectant father does not alter his, burdening her physically and leaving no time for medical attention, which often requires time and travel to obtain.

A sensitive issue for women’s global health is the role of reproductive rights. The Platform for Action takes a definitive stance in defense of such rights, including abortion. Empirical evidence shows that, in all world regions, household size contributes directly to poverty and to the workload borne by women. The percentage of poor women decreases with a corresponding decrease in fertility rate. In addition to being a cause of higher welfare for women, lower fertility rates are also shown to be an effect of other positive indicators of development, especially higher education rates and well-functioning markets for labor and credit.

Thus, a woman may want to plan or even terminate a pregnancy, requiring access to birth control and abortion, and information about these options. The Platform for Action calls a well-informed decision on family planning the right of every woman. Unsafe abortions are also a threat to women’s health. the UN estimates that nine percent of maternal deaths are caused by unsafe abortions (Jensen, 2010). About 20 million of the 40 to 60 million abortions performed each year in the world are unsafe with negative consequences for women’s health and 18.5 of these unsafe abortions are performed in developing countries. Each year 47,000 women die worldwide as a result of unsafe abortions, and these remain close to 13 percent of all maternal deaths (World Health Organization).

Nevertheless, these issues remain controversial, especially in traditional or religious societies such as Catholic and Muslim countries. At the Beijing Conference, and in the years that followed, the Vatican, Central American countries, and some Muslim countries such as Egypt, opposed the Platform for Action, insisting that information about sexual and reproductive issues should be given to parents to relay to their children, rather than directly to adolescents. They also oppose abortion rights, which the Platform for Action recognizes as a health issue for women. In the United States, the Hyde Amendment prevents foreign aid from funding abortion programs overseas, except in the case of rape and incest.

Another problem that women in particular must face is the HIV/AIDS virus, especially in the regions of Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia. In these areas, HIV/AIDS has grown into an epidemic that affects women more adversely than men, because they are less well educated about it and less well protected from it. Women are twice as likely as men to be infected with HIV/AIDS, and in some areas young women are up to six times more likely than men to become infected. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death of women of reproductive age worldwide (Gender dimension of Millennium Development Goals Report, 2013).

UNIFEM has tried to counter the feminization of infection by promoting gender equality: “Gender inequality is fueling the rapid spread of HIV with women divested of control over their lives and their bodies. Many women and girls are not in a position to say no to unwanted sex, nor can they negotiate condom use” (Opala, 2001).  

In addition to elevated biological vulnerabilities and cultural restraints on their sexual empowerment, women are at increased risk for contracting HIV for economic reasons: “Financial or material dependence on men means that women cannot control when, with whom and in what circumstances they have sex; many women have to exchange sex for material favors, for daily survival.” WHO has in response declared that women have a right to sexuality that does not endanger their lives and uses this principle to guide their work to prevent HIV/AIDS.

Physical and sexual violence against women also poses a significant threat. In 2013, the WHO sponsored the first widespread study of global data on violence against women, and found that it constitutes a ‘global health problem of epidemic proportions.’ Intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence against women, and 38 percent of all women who have been murdered were murdered by an intimate partner. Women who experience physical and/or sexual partner violence are also 1.5 times more likely to acquire a sexually-transmitted infection. During the Sixty-sixth World Health Assembly in May 2013, the governments of Belgium, India, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, United States of America, and Zambia – declared violence against women and girls “a major global public health, gender equality and human rights challenge, touching every country and every part of society” (Global and regional estimates of violence against women, 2013).

Finally, some traditional cultural practices impose threats to the health of women, and may be more difficult to change through educational and preventative policies than unhealthy practices that are unrelated to culture, such as nutrition. The UN Human Rights Commission identifies the practices most threatening to women as:

  • female circumcision, known as female genital mutilation to its opponents, which involves the excision of a woman’s external sexual organs;
  • other forms of mutilation, such as facial scarring;
  • various nutritional taboos;
  • traditional practices associated with childbirth;
  • the problem of dowries in some parts of the world;
  • honor killing; and,
  • the consequences of preference for male babies, such as parental neglect and infanticide of female babies.

Several UN agencies and other international bodies, especially the WHO are actively engaged in efforts to eliminate such practices when they affect the health of women and the female children.

Female genital mutilation is a special focus of many efforts to end violence against women, although the movement to view it as a violation of human rights meets some resistance to what some consider a violation of family and community sanctity.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the cornerstone of the human rights system, asserts that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. It protects the right to security of person and the right not to be subjected to cruel inhuman or degrading treatment — rights which are of direct relevance to the practice of female genital mutilation. The traditional interpretation of these rights has generally failed to encompass forms of violence against women such as domestic violence or female genital mutilation. This arises from a common misconception that states are not responsible for human rights abuses committed within the home or the community.

Human rights campaigns have managed to raise awareness worldwide and promote more specific interpretations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that affirm that female genital mutilation, along with other forms of violence against women and harmful traditional practices, is an assault on the dignity, equality, and bodily integrity of women and an affront to human rights.

Learn More

For more information on women and health, refer to the Human Rights Issue in Depth’s Reproductive Rights and Sexual Autonomy and the news analyses Politics of Birth Control  and The Battle over Birth Control for Developing Nations.

For additional information on chronic disease in the developing world, click here.

For more information on HIV/AIDS, refer to the Health Issue in Depth (HIV/AIDS).


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