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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[5] Similarly, research conducted by the WHO has confirmed how the health of women and girls is deeply interconnected with their human rights.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.”[9] CEDAW defines various forms of discrimination experienced by women and girls and outlines actions to end this discrimination.[10] 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.[11]

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.”[12] 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.[13]

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.”[14] Article 3 of the declaration reaffirmed women’s right to “the highest standard attainable of physical and mental health.”[15]

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.[16] 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.”[17] 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.[18]

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.”[19] In 2014, the WHO published a report explaining that globally suicide accounts for 71% of all violent deaths of women.[20] Research published in the British Medical Journal found that suicide among women rose 126% between 1990 and 2010.[21]
  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD) – According to the WHO, CVD is the number one killer of women worldwide.[22] Globally, 8.6 million women die from heart disease each year.[23] 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.[24]
  • Cancer – Women often receive inadequate treatment and diagnosis for cancer.[25]  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.”[28] 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.[29] 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.[30]
  • 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.[31] 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.[32]

Amnesty International is implementing several international campaigns to protect women’s health and human rights, which individuals can joinHuman 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.


[1] WHO. “Gender Equality is good for health.” Geneva; 2010. URL: http://www.who.int/gender/about/about_gwh_20100526.pdf?ua=1

[2] WHO. Women and health: today’s evidence, tomorrow’s agenda. Geneva; 2010. URL: http://www.who.int/gender/women_health_report/en/

[3] 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/

[4] 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

[5] Amnesty International. “Women’s Rights Are Human Rights.” New York; 2015. URL: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights

[6] WHO. “Women’s Health.” Geneva; 2013. URL: http://www.who.int/topics/womens_health/en/

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] UNFPA. “The Human Rights of Women.” New York; 2006. URL: http://www.unfpa.org/resources/human-rights-women

[10] UN Women. Text of CEDAW Convention. New York; 1982. URL: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm

[11] 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

[12] UN. International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights . New York; 1966. URL: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx

[13] UN. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. New York; 1966. URL: http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

[14] UN. Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women. New York; 1993. URL: http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/48/a48r104.htm

[15] http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/48/a48r104.htm

[16] UN. Text of the Beijing Declaration. Beijing; 1995. URL: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/platform/declar.htm

[17] 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

[18] http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2014/12/beijing20-review-of-progress-underway

[19] http://www.who.int/topics/womens_health/en/

[20] WHO. Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative. Geneva; 2014. URL: http://www.who.int/mental_health/suicide-prevention/world_report_2014/en/

[21] 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

[22] http://www.who.int/topics/womens_health/en/

[23] World Heart Federation. “Cardiovascular disease in women.” Geneva; 2014. URL: http://www.world-heart-federation.org/press/fact-sheets/cardiovascular-disease-in-women/

[24] Ibid.

[25] 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&

[26] World Ovarian Cancer Day. “Five Facts Everyone Should Know.” URL: http://ovariancancerday.org/about-ovarian/5-facts-everyone-should-know-about-ovarian-cancer/

[27] Ovations for the Cure. Ovarian Cancer Fact Sheet. Framingham; 2014. URL: https://www.ovationsforthecure.org/aware/aware_facts.php

[28] WHO. “Tuberculosis Control.” Geneva; 2011. URL: http://www.who.int/trade/distance_learning/gpgh/gpgh3/en/index5.html

[29] WHO. “Women and TB.” Geneva; 2009. URL: http://www.who.int/tb/womenandtb.pdf

[30] Action. Tuberculosis: An Unchecked Killer of Women. Washington; 2012. URL: http://www.action.org/resources/item/tuberculosis-an-unchecked-killer-of-women

[31] CDC. “Improving Women’s Health.” Atlanta; 2013. URL: http://www.cdc.gov/women/improve/

[32] NWHN. “Improving Women’s Health.” Washington; 2014. URL: https://nwhn.org/raising-womens-voices-health-care-we-need



Topics: , ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Leading the realization of human rights to health and through health (2017)
High-Level Working Group on Health and Human Rights of Women, Children and Adolescents

Open resource
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Type of resource: Manuals and guidelines

Domestic violence and abuse (2017) - Melinda Smith & Jeanne Segal

Open resource
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Type of resource: Books and reports

Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (2016)
United Nations

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Women’s and Children’s Health: Evidence of Impact of Human Rights (2013)

Open resource
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Type of resource: Books and reports

Practices in adopting a human rights-based approach to eliminate preventable maternal mortality and human rights (2011)
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Human rights and gender equality in health sector strategies: how to assess policy coherence (2011)

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Type of resource: Books and reports

Domestic Violence Legislation and its Implementation. An analysis for ASEAN countries based on international standards and good practices (2009) - Lawyers Collective Women’s Rights Initiative (Indira Jaising, Asmita Basu, Brototi Dutta)
United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM)

Open resource
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Type of resource: Books and reports

Access to medicines and the reduction of maternal mortality (2006) - Annual report to the UN General Assembly, A/61/338
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

WHO multi-country study on women’s health and domestic violence against women: summary report of initial results on prevalence, health outcomes and women’s responses (2005)

Open resource