The global challenge of women's health

Stephen Leeder
Med J Aust 2015; 202 (6): 277. || doi: 10.5694/mja15.c0406
Published online: 6 April 2015

Sierra Leone, a West African state of 6 million, saw 11 000 cases and over 3000 deaths during last year's Ebola outbreak. A bitter civil war from 1991 to 2002, fuelled largely by fierce factions from neighbouring countries, led to 50 000 deaths and degradation of the country's infrastructure and social fabric. Sierra Leone's exports of diamonds and bauxite notwithstanding, the lack of a socially responsive polity and a largely agrarian population set the scene for the epidemic. Over 70% of its population live in extreme poverty.1

Sierra Leone also tops the 2013 chart when it comes to maternal deaths — 1100 per 100 000 live births.2 The comparable figure for Australia is six. UNICEF estimates that 88% of the women have been subject to genital mutilation.3

Improving maternal health

The Millennium Development Goals, promulgated by the United Nations in September 2000 and endorsed by 189 countries, sought to halve desperate poverty, defined as living on less than a dollar a day, by 2015. The metrics suggest that this goal has been achieved, and it is a remarkable tribute to international efforts. Among the eight goals, five concern health, and most have been achieved, including huge reductions in infant mortality.

Improving maternal health is one of the health-related goals that has proved harder to reach. Under Goal 5, countries committed to reducing maternal mortality by three-quarters between 1990 and 2015. Since 1990, maternal deaths worldwide have dropped by 45%.4

Maternal mortality — often due to blood loss and infection — has proved more resistant to efforts to substantially reduce it as a global health problem. It has been intractable in areas of poverty and social turmoil. There were 289 000 maternal deaths worldwide reported in 2013.4

The explanation for these disturbing figures has much to do with social attitudes and investment. When we encounter health disparities, the explanation is most often found outside the clinic, in society and politics. In preventing maternal death, strong investment in education for women is fundamental. Provision of the basic infrastructure necessary for safe childbirth comes next. But even more basic is a pathological view of women — that they are not a priority and that public resources should be invested elsewhere.

Broadening the focus

The World Health Organization draws our attention in 2015 to food security. Its importance is great for women's health, before and during reproduction and throughout all adulthood, to reduce the risk of nutritional deficiencies, diabetes and heart disease.

When, in 2003–2004, my colleagues at Columbia University and I were examining cardiovascular disease in emerging economies, I was amazed to discover that it far outweighed obstetric and perinatal disorders, HIV and malaria as causes of death of women in the years of family formation and support. In seven out of nine developing countries that we studied, chronic diseases caused over 20% of deaths among women aged 15–34 years, while reproductive causes and HIV together accounted for about 10% of deaths.5 We questioned why the traditional conceptualisation of women's health has more to do with disorders that impair their performance as reproductive machines than with the real threats to their wellbeing, including the precursors of cardiovascular catastrophe. Those who work on global programs to abate the scourge of diabetes make a major contribution to reducing deaths among women from cardiovascular disease.

Shaking stereotypic thinking

Even if our view of women's health is restricted to an understanding of causes of death, it is clear we have a task to shake the stereotypic thinking and social relegation of women that foster a completely inadequate global response to their health needs.

There are tasks aplenty for those with advocacy in their blood at governmental, educational and individual levels. Heroic clinicians such as 91-year-old Dr Catherine Hamlin AC and her co-workers at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, its five regional hospitals and the Hamlin College of Midwives set outstanding examples of other pathways.

  • Stephen Leeder

  • Medical Journal of Australia, Sydney, NSW.


Competing interests:

No relevant disclosures


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access_time 01:38, 8 April 2015
Camille Raynes-Greenow

Excellent to see the MJA highlighting global women's health. Rather than having a disease specific focus it is good to think of the burden of mortality through a gender-sensitive lens. In that way we will tackle all the causes of female mortality and importantly develop interventions that are also specifically designed for women.

Competing Interests: No relevant disclosures

Dr Camille Raynes-Greenow
University of Sydney

access_time 04:57, 8 April 2015
Anna Whelan

Stephen Leeder raises a valid and important topic for advocates of women's health and gendered perspectives on health. While in developing countries maternal health goals have not been reached, other diseases are also causing death and harm. A valuable contribution on diabetes and its links with sexual and reproductive health was made in this publication by WDF and ARROW

Competing Interests: No relevant disclosures

Prof Anna Whelan

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