Blog contributor: Jessica M. Keralis
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report entitled Women and Health: Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda. The report reviews evidence on health issues that affect women in all stages of life, from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood, and into advanced age. The report found that across the globe, women are societal and cultural inequalities that make them more vulnerable to health disparities. They die younger, and face challenges in mental health, malnutrition and lack of education. And while women are the primary caretakers of the sick and elderly all over the world, health systems are ill-equipped to support them and often fail them when they themselves need care.
This report, while sobering, comes in an era where the perception of women’s health is changing. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, two of the most prominent women in the international spotlight, have both made women’s health a priority, and both have made it clear that it is an issue that they feel passionate about. In an interview with Lisa Ling on the Oprah Winfrey show, Secretary Clinton stated that she believes that women’s rights are a national security issue. “[I]f you look at terrorism and extremism and abject poverty and a lot of the effects and the causes of instability, you more likely than not will find places that try to limit women’s roles and rights. And so often, those who stand against us stand against the rights of women. So we do have to integrate this into our national security.” When Dr. Chan took the office of WHO Director-General in 2007, she asked that her performance be judged in part on progress in women’s health. In her forward to the WHO report, Dr. Chan states that promoting women’s health is crucial to the health and development of the current and future generations.
In her address at the International Health luncheon at the 2009 APHA annual meeting, Dr. Susan Brems, the deputy assistant administrator of the Bureau for Global Health at USAID, emphasized the need to focus on women’s health – not simply as a means to access certain groups or target specific health indicators, but for the sake of the women themselves. While progress is being made in improving women’s health around the world, the WHO report underscores the fact that much work remains to be done.