Hesperian Health Guides

Hesperian Health Guides

Self-esteem

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HealthWiki > Where Women Have No Doctor > Chapter 27: Mental Health > Self-esteem


When a woman feels she makes a valuable contribution to her family and community, she is said to have good self-esteem. A woman with good self-esteem knows that she is worthy of being treated with respect.

Self-esteem begins to develop in childhood. The amount of self-esteem a woman develops depends on how she is treated by the important people in her life—like her parents, brothers and sisters, neighbors, teachers, and spiritual guides. If these people treat her as someone who deserves their attention, if they praise her when she does something well, and if they encourage her to try things that are difficult, she will begin to feel she is valued.

a woman sending 2 boys to school while a girl crouches alone nearby
As a child, Malika felt less valued than her brothers. The family thought the boys were important enough to be given an education, but that she was not.


In some cases, girls have a hard time developing good self-esteem. For example, if their brothers are given more education or more food, girls may feel less valued simply because they are girls. If they are criticized a lot or their hard work goes unnoticed, they are more likely to grow up feeling unworthy. Then, as women, they may not believe they deserve to be treated well by their husbands, to eat as much good food as others, to have health care when they are sick, or to develop their skills. When women feel this way, they may even think that their lack of importance in the family and community is natural and right—when, in fact, it is unfair and unjust.

Self-esteem is an important part of good mental health. A woman with good self-esteem will feel more able to cope with (manage) daily problems and better able to work for changes that can improve her life and her community.

Building self-esteem

A woman’s self-esteem will influence the choices she makes about her health.

Building self-esteem is not an easy task. This is because a woman cannot just decide to value herself more. Rather, she must change deeply held beliefs that she may not know she has.

Often these changes must happen indirectly, through experiences that allow a woman to see herself in a new way. Change can come through building on strengths a woman already has, like her ability to form close, supportive relationships with others, or from learning new skills. For example:

As a child Malika was expected to be quiet and follow orders. When she was 18, her mother forced her to marry a military man. Malika was in love with someone else, but her mother did not care. The military man was an important man.


After they had been married for a number of years and Malika had given birth to 4 children, her husband stopped coming home at night. Friends would report that he had been with other women. Malika complained to her mother, and her mother told her to just live with it—this was how her life would be. Eventually Malika’s husband moved out to live with his girlfriend. Malika felt very sad and worthless.

Malika reading to some children under a tree
As an adult, Malika learned new skills and began to value herself more.


One day Malika was given the opportunity to enter a program where she would learn to take care of children at the community school. She decided to try, even though she had never worked away from home before. Learning new skills and being with the children and other women in training changed Malika. She began to see she had some worth outside her marriage and that she could be a productive worker. Malika then began to think about what she could do for her family and what she hoped to accomplish in her lifetime.


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