Hesperian Health Guides
Women Are More at Risk for Disease and Poor Health
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Because a woman’s body is different from a man’s, and because of the basic inequalities between men and women, women face a greater risk of disease and poor health. Here are some of the health problems that affect women most:
Not getting enough good food can keep a girl from growing properly, and can lead to serious health problems.
Poor nutritionPoor nutrition is the most common and disabling health problem among women in poor countries. Starting in childhood, a girl is often given less food to eat than a boy. As a result, she may grow more slowly and her bones may not develop properly (which may later cause difficulty during childbirth). The problem worsens as she becomes a young woman, because her need for good food increases as her workload increases, and as she starts her monthly bleeding, becomes pregnant, and breastfeeds.
More Informationeating for good health
Without enough good food, she may begin to suffer from general poor health, including exhaustion, weakness, and anemia. If a woman who is already malnourished becomes pregnant, she is more likely to have serious complications with childbirth, such as heavy bleeding, infection, or a baby that is born too small.
A woman's health cannot be isolated from her social status. In most of rural India, women drink less milk than their husbands and sons and they eat only after the men have been served. This usually leaves women with a limited diet, and it also tells about how she is valued.
CHETNA, Ahmedabad, India
Reproductive health problems
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV. A woman is physically more vulnerable than a man to infections like STIs and HIV. This is because a man’s semen stays inside her and the germs it carries can pass through the lining of the vagina into her blood. And, since a woman often has no signs of infection, she may not get treatment.
Because women must often have unsafe sex against their will, STIs are a social issue.
But the problem is really a social one. Women often have little control over decisions about sex and often cannot refuse unsafe sex. As a result, millions of women get an STI every year, and more than 17 million are already infected with HIV. Without treatment, STIs can cause disabling pain, severe pelvic inflammatory disease (PID), infertility, problems during pregnancy, and an increased risk of cervical cancer. Untreated, HIV becomes AIDS, which causes death.
Frequent pregnancies. In many parts of the world, a third to half of young women become mothers before they are 20 years old. Without family planning, many of these women will not have time to get strong again between births. This puts a woman at risk for poor health and complications of pregnancy and childbirth. Frequent childbirth also means she is less able to control her own life, to get an education, and to learn skills to support herself.
Complications from pregnancy and birth. In the last 40 years, the number of infant deaths has been greatly reduced. Yet the number of women who die from pregnancy and birth has not. Every minute, one woman dies from a problem related to pregnancy or childbirth. And for every woman who dies in childbirth, 20 more suffer from injury or infection. This means that over time, about a quarter of all women living in poor countries will be seriously affected by complications from pregnancy and birth.
Every year 70,000 women die from unsafe abortions.
Unsafe abortion. When a woman tries to end a pregnancy by having an unsafe abortion, she risks her life. But every day about 60,000 women and girls try to end their pregnancies in unsafe ways because they have no way to get a safe abortion. Many are left unable to have children or with lasting pain, infection, and other health problems.
Female genital cutting. Female genital cutting, in which part or all of a girl’s outer genitals are cut off, can cause serious health problems. These include pelvic and urine system infections, sexual and emotional problems, and difficulties during childbirth. Yet despite these problems, it continues to be widely practiced. Every year about 3 million girls are cut, mostly in Africa, and in some parts of the Middle East and Asia.
General medical problems
Men and women get many of the same diseases, but women can be affected differently.
More Informationalcohol and other drugs
Women are more likely than men to suffer from certain health problems because of the work they do, because of poor nutrition, or from being too tired. A disease can also cause a different kind of harm to a woman than a man. For example, a woman who suffers from a disease which weakens her or makes her look ugly may be rejected by her husband.
Once they are sick, women are less likely to seek and receive treatment until they are seriously ill. For example, tuberculosis (TB) is spreading among both men and women, but fewer women than men get treatment. Almost 3000 women die every day from TB—at least 1/3 of whom did not receive proper treatment or never even knew they had the disease. Other health problems that in the past affected mostly men are now risks for women, too. For example, more women are suffering from problems related to smoking cigarettes or drinking too much alcohol.
A woman faces health risks from her work inside and outside of the home. Working long hours, the ‘double work day’, can make her body too tired to fight disease.
Women face health risks every day from their work. At home, lung diseases from smoke or burns from cooking fires are so common that they are considered the main work-related health problem for women. Diseases spread through water are also common, because of the amount of time women spend washing clothes, hauling water, or standing in water while farming. Millions of women who work outside the home suffer health problems due to unsafe conditions and sexual harrassment in the workplace. And when they come home from their jobs, they usually continue to work at home, so they end up with twice as much work. This leads to exhaustion and an increased risk of illness.
Problems with mental health can be as serious as other health problems.
Mental health problems
Women and men have about the same risk of developing a mental health problem. Severe depression, however, affects many more women than men. It often affects women who are poor, who have experienced loss or violence, or whose communities have been destroyed or undergone great change. But women who suffer any kind of mental health problem are much less likely than men to get help.
When women suffer violence, it is usually from men they know. But most violence against women is not reported, and men are rarely punished.
More Informationrape and sexual assault
Violence is often overlooked as a health problem. But violence can lead to serious injuries, mental health problems, physical disabilities, and even death. Rape and sexual harassment are a constant threat to all women in the community and at work. Many girls are sexually abused by family members or friends. Many women are forced to have sex or are physically abused by their partners. Increasingly violent and damaging rapes and sexual assaults have become common practices during wartime.
Even though these kinds of violence against women and girls happen in almost all parts of the world, most of it is not reported, because the police and others often blame women rather than men for the problem. The men causing the violence are rarely punished.