Patriarchal attitudes and discrimination of women in health-care facilities

June 15, 2016

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At the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council (13 June – 1 July), the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice will present its latest annual report, focusing on health and safety issues of women. The present report aims to clarify the meaning of equality in the area of health and safety, identify discriminatory practices, expose the instrumentalization of women’s bodies in violation of their human dignity and reveal the barriers to women’s autonomous, effective and affordable access to health care.

Instrumentalization is defined in the report as the subjection of women’s natural biological functions to a politicized patriarchal agenda, which aims at maintaining and perpetrating certain ideas of femininity versus masculinity or of women’s subordinate role in society. 

As a result of instrumentalization, the report argues, “women face a disproportionate risk of being subjected to humiliating and degrading treatment in health-care facilities, especially during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. Furthermore, they are especially vulnerable to degrading treatment in situations where they are deprived of liberty, including in migrant detention facilities or mental institutions. They are subjected to humiliating treatment within the health-care system because of their gender identity and sexual orientation, sometimes expressly in the name of morality or religion, as a way of punishing what is considered ‘immoral’ behaviour.”

“Women’s bodies are instrumentalized for cultural, political and economic purposes rooted in patriarchal traditions. Instrumentalization occurs within and beyond the health sector and is deeply embedded in multiple forms of social and political control over women. It aims at perpetuating taboos and stigmas concerning women’s bodies and their traditional roles in society, especially in relation to their sexuality and to reproduction. As a A/HRC/32/44 6 result, women face continuous challenges in accessing health care and in maintaining autonomous control in decision-making about their own bodies. Understanding and eliminating the instrumentalization of women’s bodies, which is based on harmful cultural norms and stereotypes, and its detrimental impact on women’s health, is critical for change to occur.”

Examples of discriminatory practices affecting women and girls during their lifecycle include:

  • harmful practices such as female genital mutilation, early marriage and adolescent pregnancy
  • discrimination in the allocation of food, resulting in malnutrition
  • discrimination in access to health care
  • gender-based violence in the family and on their way to or at school
  • access to information and services for family planning and termination of pregnancy
  • disrespect and ill-treatment during childbirth in health facilities, including refusal of pain relief during labour
  • neglect and abuse in older age, including in health-care settings

The report (A/HRC/32/44) is available in English, French, Spanisch, Russian, Chinese and Arabic.