by Carly Dillis
The health of women is not only vital to women themselves, but also to all other members of society. Women’s health is integral to overall health in families, communities, and society as a whole. In many societies, gender roles are constructed in a way that ensures women to do all household chores. This includes cleaning, cooking, and child raising. Healthy women are the foundation for healthy families, and healthy families are a foundation for a stable community. Women’s health affects the family because it can cause disease to spread and cause the relapse of family structure, putting children and all family members at risk.
Societal roles and expectations have inherent detrimental effects on women’s health. The majority of societal systems worldwide are patriarchal, basing their society around men. This results in a societal norm in which men are often constructed as public beings while women are condemned to the private sphere. This causes a lack of opportunity for women’s health because the entire woman is constructed as private, including her body. When women’s bodies are seen as private, this is internalized, making women less likely to seek regular medical attention. This intrinsically devalues women’s health, making the issue intensely complicated and leaving communities vulnerable. This role for women exists virtually everywhere on Earth, therefore it is important to remember that these issues are not confined to the global south, but rather heightened in those areas.
The correlation of women’s health to family health is also due to the social construction of women. As stated above, women are constructed as private, often restricting them to the home. This has created another element of women’s construction as the providers of household labor; cooking and food preparation, cleaning, child bearing, and general house making. When these jobs are exclusively performed by women, it may leave an entire family vulnerable when she falls ill. For instance, if a woman contracts a communicable disease such as influenza or an infection, she is likely to still engage in household work. Thus, she comes in contact with all other household members’ food, clothing, living space, etc. and is extremely likely to spread her illness. Once the other members of her family leave the home, they are likely to spread it even further. At which point, the disease enters a new home and the women are still the most vulnerable for contraction because of their duties as caretakers. In the end, this chain of events creates unhealthy communities and a particular vulnerability to disease.
Women also spread disease in more concrete ways such as through breastfeeding or childbirth. Diseases such as hepatitis, HIV, Herpes, Rubella, and others are categorized as congenital diseases by the Center for Disease Control. A congenital disease is one that has the capability to pass from mother to child, before birth, during birth, or during breastfeeding. Ensuring women’s health could have the possibility to greatly reduce instances of these diseases. However, forces such as lacking resources, child marriage, rape and sexual assault, sanitary issues, deficiency in medical knowledge and understanding, etc. make this more difficult. Women worldwide do not have the opportunity to create healthy children. Therefore, women’s health is truly community health.
A final effect of women’s health on communities is family structure. Aside from causing physical illness for their children, if women fall ill they can cause distinct disadvantages for their children. If women become ill, they are often unable to perform inside of their expectations. Meaning, cleaning, cooking, child raising and other jobs are not completed. This has the potential to cause two things: 1. Children and families are not cared for and become exceptionally vulnerable and/or unable to engage in daily life, 2. these jobs become the responsibly of others within the home, usually girls, thus perpetuating the cycle of privatization of women.
To further explain these concepts, we can look to the example of HIV/AIDS. AIDS has previously been at the center of development discussion, serving goal number 6 in the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goals in 2000. Since then, HIV/AIDS have taken a back burner in development, however, it is still a huge presence worldwide and can offer important insights.
HIV/AIDS is an immune disorder that has been increasing prevalent in sub Saharan Africa with more than 60% of cases coming from said area. HIV/AIDS also primarily affect women and girls; they make up 57% of persons living with HIV. HIV can be spread through sexual intercourse, breastfeeding, or blood. This disease exemplifies how structures work against women when they become sick, the spread of disease throughout communities, and how this leaves families and communities vulnerable. Women in South Africa report feeling as though they cannot seek medical help if they think they have been infected due to heavy stigma around sex and sex work. In fact, there has been a recent push in South Africa to decriminalize sex work in order to ease the stigma around seeking medical testing and treatment. Since women are less likely to seek treatment, they are also more likely to spread this disease to their children, meaning that more and more people are born with HIV instead of being affected at a later date. This changes the nature of this problem in these countries and pointing to a solution in women’s health.
HIV/AIDS is also an important example because of its severity. As many as 25%of people who have been diagnosed with AIDS in South Africa have died because of the disease. The result of this is dire consequences for communities and families, often leaving a void in terms of social responsibility, work (both paid and unpaid), and family structures.
Overall, we see that HIV/AIDS poses a unique issue in women’s health. It allows us to look into structures that cause lacking treatment, the passing of disease through childbirth, and debilitation of families and communities.
Many new development thinkers are posing a new focus on women and women’s health. Such as Chant and Sweetman in the chapter discussing gender and development. They argue “Since development institutions are part and parcel of the structure of society surrounding women and girls, they need in addition to analyze and challenge the structural inequalities which constrain the rights, choices, aspirations, and dreams of women and girls.” As Chant and Sweetman suggest, there needs to be a critical analysis and refocusing of development work and thinking around women. Women’s health is community health and therefore must be ensured as a foundation for development. A deep and full understanding of women’s health leads to a more educated and wholesome understanding of development.
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McNeish, Hannah. “Stigma Is Still One Of Biggest Obstacles To Ending AIDS: Experts.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 18 Aug. 16. Web.
Sylvia Chant & Caroline Sweetman (2012) Fixing women or fixing the world?
‘Smart economics’, efficiency approaches, and gender equality in development, Gender &Development, 20:3, 517-529,
“United Nations Millennium Development Goals.” UN News Center. UN, 2000. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.
“#WhyThisMatters Why Should South Africa Decriminalise Sex Work?” Bhekisisa. Mail & Guardian: Africa’s Best Read, n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2016.