Hesperian Health Guides

All women have a right to health

In this chapter:

All women have a right to health. In part, this means all have a right to good health care. Good health care for women takes into account the different stages of women's lives, from adolescence to old age. It means caring for all her needs, whether or not she is sexually active or planning to have babies. For too many years, "women's health care" has meant little more than maternal health services, such as care during pregnancy and birth. These services are necessary, but they address only motherhood, a fraction of women's health needs.

The right to health goes far beyond good health care. It also means the conditions women live and work in — at home and anywhere they go — should safeguard their health rather than weaken or endanger it. A clinic where broken bones can be set is not enough if a woman lives every day with someone who beats her. Education about sexually transmitted infections is an important ingredient in a woman's health, but it is not very helpful if that woman has no say in her sex life. Asthma treatments can save lives, but more people would breathe easier and be healthier if factories were not allowed to dump poisons into our air and water.

women and children sitting outside a group of shacks.

Many great advances in medicines and treatments to improve women's health problems already exist, yet millions of people still suffer from preventable and curable diseases. This is partly because economic and political forces give priority to the needs of those who have power and wealth. People with less power and fewer resources pay the price — often with their health. Corporate globalization has caused extreme inequality, leaving millions without the resources they need to live in good health. Economic policies dictated by the rich and powerful force governments to cut spending on health, education, and social services while the majority of the world's population — living in poverty, lacking basic sanitation, nutrition, and medical services — needs more, not less, of that. Women, often denied basic rights only because they are women, are often the most impoverished, and their health is increasingly threatened by these global policies.

a crowd of men and women marching while holding signs.
Hands off our bodies
Stop the violence
Attaining the highest possible level of health and well-being is a fundamental human right, regardless of a person's color, ethnic background, gender, age, ability, sexual orientation, religion, class, or caste.

The information and activities in this book can help you, your families, and your communities improve health at a local level and confront the larger social forces that undermine women's right to health. You can use this book to help develop campaigns and strategies in your community to challenge and change these conditions. You will find that you are not alone; you are a member of a broader global movement that cares about women's health and promotes the right to health for all.

Addressing root causes

Good health is more than the absence of disease. Good health means the well-being of a woman's body, mind, and spirit. A woman's health is affected not just by the way her body is made, but by the social, cultural, and economic conditions in which she lives.

Improving women's health means addressing the "root causes" of ill health — including poverty, gender and racial inequality, and other forms of oppression. While men's health is also affected by these factors, women as a group are treated differently from men. Women usually have less power and lower status in the family and community. This basic inequality means:

  • more women than men suffer from lack of access to resources like money, food, land, and mobility.
  • more women than men are denied the education and skills to support and protect themselves.
  • more women than men lack access to important health information and services.
  • more women than men lack power and control over their lives and basic health care decisions.
  • poor women, women with darker skin, migrant women, and women from ethnic minority groups experience even more challenges than other women.

This larger view can help you to understand and work to change the underlying "root causes" of women’s poor health. Root causes are the many factors that influence and affect women’s health. These may not be visible, but like the roots of a tree, they are important to promoting life and well-being.

a tree that looks unhealthy.

Just like a tree that is denied water or healthy soil, when women and girls have less power and lower status in their family and community, they cannot become healthy and strong.

Women's health is a community issue

a woman speaking.
As you listen to women share their stories, you will see that a woman's health problem is almost never her problem alone. Women's health is a community issue!
When you address the roots of poor health for women, everyone — the woman, her family, and the whole community — benefits. A healthy woman has a chance to fulfill her potential. She can decide how to live her life on her own terms and work towards her own goals. She can contribute to her community in the ways that she chooses, and she can gain access to the resources she needs to have a healthy family, if she wants one. Winning these rights for every woman is important in itself, but there is an even larger benefit for all who surround her.
a tree showing the roots of women's health, such as access to education and equal treatment, and branches labeled with ways that women's health benefits the community.
Because when women are treated as second class citizens, the whole community is deprived of what they have to offer — their intelligence, creativity, and participation in helping the community move forward.

This book will help you find broader, more inclusive, and more realistic ways to improve women's health and the health of the entire community. As you address the conditions that deprive women of good health, your efforts will help replace the roots of the problems with roots that support good health for all women.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024