Women and Health

In Focus Health UNICEF

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Health, in all respects, physical and mental, is a fundamental human right. It is the basis for well-being and participation in many aspects of life. Biology influences health, but so do social norms, political choices and levels of economic advancement—all of which contain patterns of gender discrimination. This means that full health eludes most women in the world today.

Discrimination bars some from accessing the health care services they need, or renders them more susceptible to illness. It might come in the form of the man in the family who sleeps alone under the household’s only mosquito net. Or refuses to use condoms despite a high risk of transmitting HIV. Gender-based violence, a persistent epidemic in all societies, destroys women’s physical and mental health, and at times takes their lives. Early marriage exposes girls to the potentially devastating health impacts of bearing children at too young an age.

In many countries, privatizing health care without guarantees of access for everyone has reduced services for women, and pushed onto them additional care responsibilities for sick family members. This leaves them less time to care for themselves, and to pursue opportunities in school or work to improve their lives. 

Some progress has been made in improving health care for women. Maternal deaths have dropped by 45 per cent since 1990. Yet in 2013, nearly 800 women still died every day from maternal causes—99 per cent of these deaths occurred in developing countries. Most of their lives could have been saved with simple, well-known preventative interventions, even as basic as a bar of soap.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted in 1995 by 189 UN Member States, defined health as complete well-being, not just the absence of illness or infirmity. It stipulated that women must enjoy the highest standards of health throughout their lives, increased resources for research and follow-up on women’s health concerns, and confirmed women’s right to sexual and reproductive health and choices about their sexuality.

Among other actions, governments committed to delivering affordable, quality care, and boosting investments in services essential to women. Given how many health threats women still face, and the failure to uphold their inherent rights, these actions are now more urgent than ever—and long overdue.

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Fast facts

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In the words of...

Melinda Gates – Women’s Health is Everyone’s Health

Oped Melinda Gates
Photo: Gates Foundation

Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Along with Bill Gates, she shapes and approves the Foundation’s strategies, reviews results, and sets the overall direction of the organization. Together, they meet with grantees and partners to further the Foundation’s goal of improving equity in the United States and around the world. They make many public appearances to advocate for the Foundation’s issues.

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Editor's picks

UN Women action to confront the Ebola crisis

In Focus Health UN Women Liberia
Photo: UN Women/Winston Daryoue

Where: Global
Organization: UN Women

Since the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was declared an international public health emergency in August, many UN organizations, including UN Women, have been working hand-in-hand to help those affected on the ground. UN Women has been facilitating mobilization and information efforts targeting women, who have been disproportionately affected by this disease.

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Brazil: Tackling cervical cancer through vaccination

Where: Brazil
Organization: WHO

The human papillomavirus (HPV) can cause cervical cancer, one of the most common cancers in women. There are currently two vaccines that protect against the most virulent types of HPV known to cause at least 70% of cervical cancers. In this video, adolescent girls in Sao Paulo, Brazil, learn the importance of the vaccine and why they are getting them.

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Related story: Top ten issues for women's health

H4+ Partnership: Sierra Leone and the DRC

Where: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Organization: UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNFPA, UN Women, WHO, The World Bank

Through the H4+, UNAIDS, UNICEF, UNFPA, UN Women, WHO and The World Bank work together to improve the reproductive health of women and children. This video showcases initiatives led by H4+ and Governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone to reduce child and maternal mortality rates.

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Related H4+ story: A Mother in Zimbabwe Delivers Four “Miracle” Babies

Cambodian women living with HIV/AIDS get fresh start

In Focus Health UN Women Cambodia
Photo: CHEMS/CHEC/Mr. Sim Kalyan

Where: Cambodia
Organization: UN Women

More than 1,300 poor women have received home-based care, skills training and grants to start their own businesses through a Fund for Gender Equality programme.

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In Gaza, WFP turns women into community nutritionists

In Focus Health WFP
Photo: WFP/Jane Howard

Where: Gaza
Organization: WFP

Naifa is among 1000 women participating in WFP’s innovative nutrition awareness pilot programme in Gaza that helps women directly address the “double burden” of obesity and malnutrition in their communities.

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Thuthuzela care centres in South Africa

Where: South Africa
Organization: Produced by UNTV for UN Women

Thuthuzela means "comfort" in the Xhosa language. The Thuthuzela Care Centres are "one-stop shops" designed to address the needs of sexual assault survivors. The centres provide emergency medical care, crisis counseling, police investigation and court preparation in an integrated and survivor friendly manner.

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Sustaining livelihoods affected by the Aral Sea disaster

In Focus Health UNV
Photo: Leonid Kudreyko

Where: Uzbekistan

UN Agencies, UNDP, WHO, UNESCO, UNFPA, UNV and the Government of Uzbekistan run a joint programme to improve the welfare of vulnerable groups due to the Aral Sea ecological crisis in the Autonomous Republic of Karakalpakstan within Uzbekistan. Primary health care workers are trained to specifically address the needs of women and youth as a result of the environmental disaster.

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Celebrating Birthdays

Where: Global
Organization: UNAIDS

This animated video tells the story of Mariam and her child who was born with HIV. UNAIDS works to ensure all children are born HIV-free and mothers remain healthy to care for their newborns.

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Going the last mile to provide family planning in Lao PDR

In Focus Health UNFPA
Photo: UNFPA/Micka Perier

Where: Lao PDR
Organization: UNFPA

Family planning saves lives. It reduces unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and complications from pregnancy and childbirth. In Lao PDR, the unmet need for family planning is high. UNFPA, in collaboration with other partners, is working to change this.

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