What’s Next for Women’s Health?

For Women’s History Month, we’ve checked in on women and girl’s education and examined the causes of violence against women. In our third feature, we’ll take a look at the current state and future direction of women’s health.

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Improving the wellbeing of women produces ripple effects across global wellbeing. This is a fact the UN acknowledged when it set Millennium Development Goal 5 — “improve maternal health,” which includes reducing the maternal mortality rate by three quarters and achieving universal access to reproductive health.

In the fourteen years that’s passed since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were envisioned in 2000, there’s been a lot of progress in both aspects of maternal health. However, among the 8 MDGs, Millennium Development Goal 5 lags the farthest behind: The maternal mortality ratio has declined by 47%, but this drop still falls short of the 75% decrease the UN hopes to achieve by next year. More and more women are receiving healthcare during their pregnancy, but only about half the women in developing regions get the recommended amount of care.

Moreover, as epidemiological and demographic pressure points continue to alter the state of public health, health professionals are now realizing that the focus on maternal health alone is not enough to raise the wellbeing of women worldwide. So, in September 2013, the World Health Organization’s monthly bulletin called for a new agenda on women’s health — one that takes a “life course to women’s health.”

“The predominant view today is still of women as reproductive beings, which unfortunately leads to neglect of women’s health in other stages of life,” Ana Langer, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, said in the bulletin.

“Women’s non-reproductive health is becoming important as a public health issue, mainly due to population ageing and changing lifestyles, but health systems, especially in low- and middle-income countries, are not prepared to deal with the double burden of disease among women,” she added.

So what exactly does a life course to women’s health do? It puts a greater focus on noncommunicable diseases, which “represent 54% of the world’s burden of disability-adjusted life years.” It still emphasizes the importance of reproductive health, but also breaks free of a singular mode by implementing “[interventions] that promote good nutrition during pregnancy, optimize early child development and facilitate access to health information, especially during adolescence” because early interventions can lay the “foundations for a healthy life in later years. Changing exposures across the life course, particularly in terms of harmful tobacco and alcohol use, unhealthy dietary habits and poor physical activity, pay important health dividends in the long term.”

The practical advantage of this life course approach to women’s health come from three innovations:

First, it marks the convergence of three complementary domains: maternal and reproductive health, ageing and noncommunicable diseases. Second, it involves the development, piloting and testing of new health-care delivery systems featuring diagonal approaches and private–public partnerships. Third, it is driven by policy-makers engaged in applying knowledge translation methods that encourage the use of research and evidence in policy development and planning.

However, there are many challenges to implementing a re-tailored approach to women’s health, so in an upcoming post, we’ll talk to Community Partners International to see how they’ve gone about improving women’s health in Myanmar — a country with the double burden of having a weak health infrastructure and being home to the world’s longest-running civil war.

Cover Image: Jess Seldon/Department for International Development (Creative Commons)