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Analytical summary - Gender and women's health

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Women’s health is broader than reproductive issues only, and should be seen in this wider context. It is best understood in terms of life phases, ranging from infancy to old age. Each phase, due to its specific risks and conditions, has the potential to influence outcomes in the following phase, due to women’s specific roles and bodies.

Very early in life there is a need to avoid parentally transmitted HIV, as this influences health for the rest of an infant’s life. As a child, obtaining adequate nutrition is essential, together with education and appropriate levels of parental support, which in some cultures is not invariably present for girls. Education is a strong predictor of women’s future health. However, many health indicators for girls are poorer in Africa than in other parts of the world.

Total fertility rate per woman in the WHO African Region, 1990 and 2009

Sexual activity may start in adolescence, with complication such as early pregnancy or abortion. In adulthood, women who bear children confront the highest maternal mortality figures in the world, with a high fertility rate and often unsafe sex practices. However, many of these problems are avoidable through simple and inexpensive interventions.

Middle-aged and older women become vulnerable to noncommunicable diseases and face social and financial disadvantage if widowed for a prolonged period. Older women may be left with sole responsibility for raising grandchildren orphaned through HIV/AIDS.

More understanding is needed of the interlinked health and social factors that can negatively impact women throughout their lifespan. This could to some extent be achieved through better collection and use of sex-disaggregated data. Regular production, analysis and use of gender statistics is key to finding ways of improving women’s health at all phases.