Hesperian Health Guides

Special Needs of Women

Rest and Exercise

Work with your community to lower women's workload. Stoves that use less fuel and village water sources improve everyone's lives


Most women work very hard cooking, carrying water, and collecting fuel to help their families survive. If a woman also works outside her home, she has a double burden. She may work all day at a factory, in an office, or in the fields, and then return home to her second job—caring for her family. All this hard work can lead to exhaustion, malnutrition, and sickness, because she does not have enough time to rest or enough food to give her energy for her tasks.

a man and a woman carrying tools; the man carries a baby on his back
a woman thinking while she works at a sewing machine
I am so tired of sitting! I need to get more exercise. Maybe I should walk home...

To help reduce a woman’s workload, family members can share the burden of work at home. Cooking, cleaning, and gathering fuel and water with other women (together or in turns) can also help make a woman’s burden lighter. Whether she works for pay or not, she probably needs help caring for her children. Some women organize child care cooperatives, where one woman cares for young children so that others can work. Each woman pays something to the woman caring for the children or they each take a turn.

If a woman is pregnant, she needs even more rest. She can explain to her family why she needs rest, and ask them for extra help with her workload.


Most women get plenty of exercise doing their daily tasks. But if a woman does not move much while she works—for example, if she sits or stands all day in a factory or office—she should try to walk and stretch every day. This will help keep her heart, lungs, and bones strong.

Regular health exams

a woman holding a baby while standing outside a health center

Many STIs and cancers do not show signs until the illness is very serious. By then it may be too late to treat the problem.

If possible, a woman should see a trained health worker to check her reproductive system every 3 to 5 years, even if she feels fine. This exam should include a pelvic exam, a breast exam, a test for weak blood (anemia), and an exam for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) if she is at risk. It may also include a Pap test (explained below) or other test for cervical cancer. This is especially important for women over 35, because women are more likely to get cancer of the cervix (the opening of the womb) as they get older.

Safer sex

AIDS has become a major cause of death among women.

Having unprotected sex, or sex with many partners, makes a woman more at risk for getting an STI, including HIV infection. HIV infection can lead to death from AIDS. Untreated STIs can cause infertility, pregnancies in the tube, and miscarriage. Having many partners also makes a woman more at risk for developing pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and cancer. Women and men can help prevent all these problems by practicing safer sex.

Family planning

A young woman should use family planning to delay her first pregnancy until her body is fully grown. Then, after her first baby is born, she should wait 2 or more years between each pregnancy. This method, called child spacing, lets her body get strong again between pregnancies, and her baby can finish breastfeeding. When she has the number of children she wants, she can choose not to have any more.

Good care during pregnancy and birth

Many women do not seek care during their pregnancy because they do not feel sick. But feeling well does not mean there are no problems. Many of the problems of pregnancy and birth, such as high blood pressure or the baby lying the wrong way, usually do not have any signs. A woman should try to get regular prenatal (before birth) checkups, so that a midwife or health worker trained in giving care during pregnancy can examine her body and see if her pregnancy is going well. Good prenatal care can prevent problems from becoming dangerous.

the opening of a woman's vagina, with the womb and cervix showing
More Information
squeezing exercise
Family planning and good care during pregnancy and birth can prevent:
Fallen womb (prolapse). If a woman has been pregnant often, had long labors, or pushed too early during labor, the muscles and ligaments that hold up her womb may have become weak. When this happens the womb can fall part or all of the way into the vagina. This is called a prolapse.
  • leaking urine
  • in severe cases, the cervix can be seen at the opening of the vagina
  • Space children at least 2 years apart.
  • During labor, push only when the cervix is fully open and there is a strong need to push. Never let anyone push down on your womb to get the baby out quickly.

Urine leaking from the vagina (fistula). If a baby’s head presses too long against the wall of the vagina during labor, the vaginal tissue may be damaged. Urine or stool may leak out of the vagina.

  • Wait to get pregnant until your body is fully grown.
  • Get medical help if labor goes on too long.
  • Space babies at least 2 years apart so that your muscles can get strong again in between pregnancies.

A woman should examine her breasts every month, even after her monthly bleeding has stopped forever.

Regular breast exams

If a woman has a disability that makes examining her breasts difficult, she can ask someone she trusts to do it for her.

Most women have some small lumps in their breasts. These lumps often change in size and shape during her monthly cycle. They can become very tender just before a woman’s monthly bleeding. Sometimes—but not very often—a breast lump that does not go away can be a sign of breast cancer.

A woman can usually find breast lumps herself if she learns how to examine her breasts. If she does this once a month, she will become familiar with how her breasts feel, and will be more likely to know when something is wrong.

How to examine your breasts

a woman looking at her uncovered breasts in a mirror

Look at your breasts in a mirror, if you have one. Raise your arms over your head. Look for any change in the shape of your breasts, or any swelling or changes in the skin or nipple. Then put your arms at your sides and check your breasts again.

a woman on her back, feeling her left breast with her right arm while her head rests on her bent left arm; a folded cloth supports her left shoulder
Lie down. Keeping your fingers flat, press your breast and feel for any lumps.
a dotted line showing the back-and-forth pattern of a woman's hand examining her breast
Be sure to touch every part of your breast. It helps to use the same pattern every month.

What to do if you find a lump

If the lump is smooth or rubbery, and moves under the skin when you push it with your fingers, do not worry about it. But if it is hard, has an uneven shape, and is painless, keep watching it—especially if the lump is in only one breast and does not move even when you push it. See a health worker if the lump is still there after your next monthly bleeding. This may be a sign of cancer. You should also get medical help if there is a discharge that looks like blood or pus.

This page was updated:21 May 2021