This year, we mark a century of women as agents of change to improve their lives, communities and health.
Over the past 100 years, many advances have improved the health of women and girls. Examples include: social and legal reforms regarding the minimum age of marriage and sexual consent; access to safe abortion services (where legal), contraception, mammograms and other health technologies; and progress towards ending harmful practices such as sexual and gender-based violence, including female genital mutilation.
But the health of women involves much more than reproduction and many diseases manifest themselves and are treated differently in women. Women scientists, clinicians, advocates and women’s health researchers have strengthened medical knowledge and practice of many common conditions, including cardiovascular disease – now one of the top 10 causes of female deaths across the world.
Women did not do these things alone – but these things could not have been achieved without women and girls taking matters into their own hands.
Yes, there is much to celebrate on this 100th anniversary. But we are also faced with challenges. Maternal mortality rates and HIV rates among young women are still too high, tobacco consumption among women is increasing, sexual and other forms of gender-based violence continue to be widespread, and there is an increasingly heavy burden of noncommunicable diseases on women.
The theme this year, “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women”, focuses on some basic determinants of women’s health. The direct and indirect ways that gender inequality prevents women of all ages from realizing their human right to health requires action now.
Education and training equip girls and women with skills needed to protect their health but social norms deny many the chance to attend and complete primary and secondary levels of education. This negatively affects fertility and smoking rates and HIV prevention, and is associated with increased risk of experiencing sexual and other forms of gender based violence.
Access to science and technology empowers women to take control of their health and enables women and girls to participate in specialized training and educational programs. With such training, women and girls benefit from innovative health campaigns often disseminated through online or mobile phone technology. If we are going to be innovative with health strategies, we must make sure that women and girls are not left behind because they do not know how to use them or do not have access to them.
Involving women in health research and technology development ensures that medical advances do not jeopardize their health and ensures equal benefits from these advances. This requires women’s informed participation in clinical trials, as well as data from all health research disaggregated by sex, at the very least.
When women benefit from decent work conditions they are more likely to benefit from social protection measures such as employer-based health insurance, maternity benefits, occupational health and safety measures – all factors that improve access to health care and health outcomes.
In sum, when women and girls do not have equal access to these determinants of health, education, employment and health systems have failed them. It is time we stop failing women and girls.
Today, let us take the time to celebrate achievements made for and by women over the past century. Let us also move forward to address critical gaps, building on lessons learned since the first International Women’s Day, to realize the full potential of women and girls the world over.
Dr Margaret Chan