What is women’s health?
Women’s health refers to the health of girls and women across the life course encompassing newborn, child and adolescent health to adult health and older age. In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a report, Women and health: today’s evidence, tomorrow’s agenda, that signaled “the need for innovative strategies and new health service delivery models” to address the health-related issues affecting girls and women throughout their life course. Since that report was published, the WHO and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted that several global initiatives have been launched but these initiatives narrowly focused sexual and reproductive health.[3,4]
Why is women’s health a human rights issue?
Amnesty International has found that women and girls face gender-based discrimination and violence that causes poor health. Similarly, research conducted by the WHO has confirmed how the health of women and girls is deeply interconnected with their human rights. Specifically, the WHO has shown how discrimination experienced by women and girls prevent them from receiving the quality health services and attaining the best possible level of health. The socio-cultural factors that significantly affect women’s health include: unequal power relationships between men and women; social norms that decrease education and paid employment opportunities; a narrow focus on women’s reproductive roles; and potential or actual experience of physical, sexual and emotional violence.
What are the relevant sources?
According to the United Nations Population Fund, “Numerous international and regional instruments have drawn attention to gender-related dimensions of human rights issues, the most important being the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979.” CEDAW defines various forms of discrimination experienced by women and girls and outlines actions to end this discrimination. States that have ratified the convention are legally required to implement its CEDAW provisions and submit reports to the UN Committee on the Elimination against Women every four years.
The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) is another international human rights law that safeguards women’s health. ICESCR Article 12 explicitly recognizes “the right of everyone to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.” States that have ratified the ICESCR are required to take action that ensures both women and men have access to quality health services. The ICESCR Articles 6-9 also calls on states to ensure women and men have equal opportunity to choose their profession and work in safe conditions while Article 11 recognizes the right to adequate standard of living for everyone and Article 13 mandates the right to education for both men and women. Similarly, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Articles 2 and 26 recognize the equality of all persons and mandates against discrimination based on gender.
In 1993, the United Nations adopted the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. This declaration affirmed that “violence against women constitutes a violation of the rights and fundamental freedoms of women” and recognized that “violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” Article 3 of the declaration reaffirmed women’s right to “the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health.”
In 1995, the member states of the WHO signed the Beijing Declaration to pledge their commitment to ensuring that women would have equal access to health services and be treated equally in all spheres of society. Although the declaration did not include an enforcement component like CEDAW or ICESCR, UN Women has confirmed that UN member states “have recommitted themselves to Beijing at national-level reviews… which feed into regional-level assessments by the five UN regional commissions.” The findings of these reviews will inform the discussion at the 59th Commission on the Status of Women in September 2015, when UN agencies, member states, and civil society will identify the gaps in achieving women’s rights and implementing additional programs to ensure women and girls attain the best level of health possible.
What are the relevant issues/problems with regards to women’s health?
Despite the enactment of laws to protect women’s health, women and girls are still denied access to quality health services. Examples of problems facing women of ages include:
- Depression and suicide – According to the WHO, “depression is the leading cause of disease burden for women in both high-, low- and middle-income countries.” In 2014, the WHO published a report explaining that globally suicide accounts for 71% of all violent deaths of women. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that suicide among women rose 126% between 1990 and 2010.
- Cardiovascular disease (CVD) – According to the WHO, CVD is the number one killer of women worldwide. Globally, 8.6 million women die from heart disease each year. Prevention and treatment services provided to women are often inadequate. Part of the reason CVD is so deadly for women is because they are less likely to be prescribed aspirin to prevent a second attack, less likely to receive sophisticated pacemaker models, and less likely to be recommended for potentially life-saving cardiac surgery than men.
- Cancer – Women often receive inadequate treatment and diagnosis for cancer. For example, ovarian cancer is only diagnosed in less than one-fifth of actual cases but causes at least 140,000 deaths worldwide each year.[26,27]
- Tuberculosis – According to the WHO, “tuberculosis (TB) kills more women annually than all the causes of maternal mortality combined” and is the “third leading cause of death among women aged 15-44.” Men are more likely to be diagnosed with TB, but women of reproductive age are more likely to develop active TB than men of the same age. Because TB is a disease of poverty, the chances of women contracting TB are greater than men because 70 percent of the world’s poor are women.
- Sexual and reproductive health and rights, defined by the UN as “the equal opportunities, rights and conditions of all people to have a safe and satisfying sexual life, and to be able to decide over their own bodies without coercion, violence or discrimination.”
How can women’s health be protected and improved?
Health workers, advocacy professionals and others can take several actions to improve women’s health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, implementing projects that promote cancer prevention, early detection and treatment for women are especially helpful. The Women’s Health Network suggests joining advocacy campaigns that influence government policy, health-care institutions, and health-related companies, including drug-makers, are other ways to improve women’s health.
Amnesty International is implementing several international campaigns to protect women’s health and human rights, which individuals can join. Human Rights Watch also offers a description of opportunities to help improve women’s health including a global campaign for the universal ratification of CEDAW.
This page was written by Tara Ornstein in February 2015 and last updated in October 2015.
 WHO. “Gender Equality is good for health.” Geneva; 2010. URL: http://www.who.int/gender/about/about_gwh_20100526.pdf?ua=1
 WHO. Women and health: today’s evidence, tomorrow’s agenda. Geneva; 2010. URL: http://www.who.int/gender/women_health_report/en/
 WHO. “At the crossroads: transforming health systems to address women’s health across the life course.” Geneva; 2013. URL: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/91/9/13-128439/en/
 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “More than mothers.” New York; 2014. URL: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/MoreThanMothers.aspx
 Amnesty International. “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” New York; 2015. URL: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights
 WHO. “Women’s Health.” Geneva; 2013. URL: http://www.who.int/topics/womens_health/en/
 UNFPA. “The Human Rights of Women.” New York; 2006. URL: http://www.unfpa.org/resources/human-rights-women
 UN Women. Text of CEDAW Convention. New York; 1982. URL: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm
 UN Women. “Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.” New York; 2009. URL: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/committee.htm
 UN. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights . New York; 1966. URL: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx
 UN. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. New York; 1966. URL: http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx
 UN. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. New York; 1993. URL: http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/48/a48r104.htm
 UN. Text of the Beijing Declaration. Beijing; 1995. URL: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/declar.htm
 UN Women. “Beijing +20: Review of Progress Underway.” New York; 2014. URL: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/12/beijing20-review-of-progress-underway
 WHO. Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative. Geneva; 2014. URL: http://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/world_report_2014/en/
 Kay Meera. Suicide is leading cause of death in young Indian women, finds international study BMJ 2013. URL: http://www.bmj.com/content/346/bmj.f1900.full.pdf+html
 World Heart Federation. “Cardiovascular disease in women.” Geneva; 2014. URL: http://www.world-heart-federation.org/press/fact-sheets/cardiovascular-disease-in-women/
 New York Times. “Widespread Flaws Found in Ovarian Cancer Treatment.” New York; 2013. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/12/health/ovarian-cancer-study-finds-widespread-flaws-in-treatment.html?pagewanted=all&_r=2&
 World Ovarian Cancer Day. “Five Facts Everyone Should Know.” URL: http://ovariancancerday.org/about-ovarian/5-facts-everyone-should-know-about-ovarian-cancer/
 Ovations for the Cure. Ovarian Cancer Fact Sheet. Framingham; 2014. URL: https://www.ovationsforthecure.org/aware/aware_facts.php
 WHO. “Tuberculosis Control.” Geneva; 2011. URL: http://www.who.int/trade/distance_learning/gpgh/gpgh3/en/index5.html
 WHO. “Women and TB.” Geneva; 2009. URL: http://www.who.int/tb/womenandtb.pdf
 Action. Tuberculosis: An Unchecked Killer of Women. Washington; 2012. URL: http://www.action.org/resources/item/tuberculosis-an-unchecked-killer-of-women
 CDC. “Improving Women’s Health.” Atlanta; 2013. URL: http://www.cdc.gov/women/improve/
 NWHN. “Improving Women’s Health.” Washington; 2014. URL: https://nwhn.org/raising-womens-voices-health-care-we-need