Hesperian Health Guides

Chapter 1: Taking Action for Women's Health

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HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > Chapter 1: Taking Action for Women's Health


1 woman speaking to another as they ride bicycles away from a house.
Your husband watches the kids so you can go to the meeting? What a man!

Women and men of all ages, everywhere, are taking action to improve women's health. It is important to learn about the different challenges people face and the imaginative ways communities come together to make change. While no two communities are the same, there is much we can learn from each other. The experiences related in this book can help you think about the health challenges women face in your community and inspire you to find solutions that will save lives, improve the health of women and girls for years to come, and make your community a more just and equitable place where everyone can thrive.

In Peru, a midwife watches one of her indigenous patients die in childbirth. It didn't have to be that way! So instead of just accepting this sad outcome, she starts talking with other people in the community so they can work together to figure out how to prevent it from happening in the future.
2 women comforting another woman.
A woman and 3 girls talking together.
In Zimbabwe, adolescent girls who are survivors of sexual violence work together in "Empowerment Clubs" to build their leadership skills, confidence, and support each other to stay in school. With the support of sensitive adult mentors, they discuss their hopes and dreams as well as their experiences of abuse.
In Sri Lanka, young women working in Free Trade Zone factories face robberies and assaults as they travel home from the factory at night. Working with their union, they persuade the factory owners to start a local bus service between the Zone and their boarding houses, so they can get home safely.
at=women walking at night with a bus nearby.
a man speaking to a woman and 2 children.
In Afghanistan, health educators use picture cards to teach men the danger signs to watch out for when their wives or daughters are pregnant or in labor. The men make copies of the trainers' picture cards to show their wives, families, and neighbors. With this new information, families are better prepared to evaluate how well a labor is going, recognize when it might become an emergency, and decide whether they should make the long trip to the hospital.
In South Africa, women who receive microloans also discuss other issues at their meetings, such as good communication with their parters and the importance of safer sex. These “Sisters-for-Life” are not only building their businesses and repaying their loans, they are also increasing their understanding of gender roles and sexually transmitted infections, and how to make their relationships more fulfilling.
a group of women laughing and talking.

Improving women's status to improve health

As you read through the stories and strategies like these that are collected in this book, you will see the many and diverse ways that organizers and community members have taken action for women's health. They have arrived at these strategies by asking themselves: How do women fit into society as a whole? How are they treated as mothers, daughters, neighbors, co-workers, and community members? How are their experiences different due to their ethnic, social, and economic backgrounds? What conditions and obstacles get in the way of women's health?

By asking these questions, people and organizations concerned with women's health have found they need to take action in various ways, including:

  • addressing gender inequality, especially violence against women, so that women can speak up for themselves, be heard, participate in decision making, and become respected leaders.
  • eliminating racial, ethnic, religious, or language barriers to health care so that no one is excluded from the support they need.
  • organizing for improved working conditions and equal pay for women to lessen the harm caused by overwork and poverty.
  • creating safe opportunities for women and men to look at all the different ways people feel and express their sexuality, so they can communicate better with each other, experience sexual pleasure, and practice safer sex.

Collected wisdom

Hesperian's books about women's health (Where Women Have No Doctor, A Health Handbook for Women with Disabilities, and others) offer community health workers and health promoters practical knowledge and skills to prevent and treat common health problems, overcome barriers, and save lives. People have found these resources to be incredibly useful. Over the years, women and health workers from around the world have sent us letters and stories telling how these materials made a difference in their lives and communities. They also told us that to make a deeper, long-lasting difference in women's lives, they needed more tools and strategies to raise awareness, organize, and advocate for women's rights, specifically the right to health. The goal of this book is to respond to those needs and support grassroots groups doing that important work.

Hundreds of women and men, young and old, from many countries have contributed to this book. As individuals and members of organizations, they passed on their experiences and wisdom about how they have taken action to promote women's health in their communities. A team of women from diverse regions in the world collected their stories, strategies, and activities and have woven them together to show the many different paths people have walked towards this common goal.

Grassroots groups of women and men in 23 countries then helped by reading this new material and trying out these activities in their own communities. Their feedback has helped create a resource that we hope you will adapt and use in your varied and changing contexts.

This book is for you!

Everyone can play a role and take action to support the health of women. The midwife in Peru whose client died in childbirth did not see herself as an organizer. Her job was to support women in labor. Yet, when she saw the challenges her patients faced, she stepped into a new role — one that still supported her clients' health but in a different way. She started talking with others to see what changes they could make together so that fewer women would die in childbirth. They held community meetings, discussed needed changes at the health center, made connections with people in power, challenged discrimination against indigenous women, and learned about legal protections. She didn't do it all by herself. She didn't need to be a skilled community organizer herself. But she did need to be able to notice a problem, imagine that it could be different, and begin gathering people who could work together to make a difference. That is what we mean by taking action.

You too can bring people together to solve the problems that get in the way of women being able to enjoy good health. This book is for everyone, not just community leaders or health educators.

This book is for all women because when women work together to understand and address health problems, they can take effective action to promote their health and the health of their communities.
a group of women from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and other parts of the world.
men and women working together to plant trees.
This book is for young people, because they will lead the way to change. All over the world, they are already challenging old ideas about inequality and developing new ways for women and men to foster mutual respect, trust, and health.
This book is for men because they are essential partners in the struggle to promote the health and rights of women and girls. They also benefit from a loosening of restrictive gender roles. Improving conditions for women improves the conditions for the whole community!
a group of men and women standing together.
a health worker talking with a woman in the doorway of a house.
This book is for health workers who share the belief that their job is not just to treat health problems, but to work together with their communities to prevent health problems and promote wellbeing. Health workers are most effective when they participate in community-led actions to address root causes of health problems, encourage community organizing efforts to improve women's health, and advocate for change in the institutions that influence health and health care delivery.