At the risk of stating the obvious, the world is a very diverse place. There are different landscapes, different climates, different cultures, different societies, and different people with different lifestyles within those societies. It stands to reason, then, that the health problems these people experience are also quite diverse.
Around the world, women face different threats, challenges, and barriers to health. Some are linked to their physical environment, while others are more closely related to the structure of their society. When thinking about women’s health, it’s important to remember that most diseases are not gender-specific, but many diseases affect women more often or more strongly than men due to a variety of social factors. Things like domestic responsibilities, sexual practices, gender equality, and social status can all impact a woman’s likelihood of developing a disease, being diagnosed, and being treated.
It’s also important to remember that what’s true of a population in general may not be true of every individual within that population. This is known as the ecological fallacy, and it’s a fundamental part of population studies. The information presented here is true of broad geographic regions, but it doesn’t mean that everyone in those regions experiences these issues equally.
For women in North America and other high-income countries, the most pressing health problems are chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. These diseases tend to be caused by a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors like diet, exercise, smoking, and drinking. Advancements towards gender equalities have seen the dismantling of some perceived gender barriers, resulting in more American women drinking and smoking heavily. These used to be seen as more male activities, but as overall smoking rates have declined in the U.S., women’s rates have gone up. This trend is also developing in middle-income countries, as increasing gender equality correlates to increasing rates of lung cancer among women.1
Heart disease is a result of high cholesterol, which is a consequence of the increasingly high-calorie and high-fat diets becoming common around the world. Estrogen serves as a sort of protection against the build-up of cholesterol in the arteries, but hormonal changes post-menopause put women at a significantly higher risk of heart attack and stroke once they reach age 60.2
Diabetes – the inability of the body to produce and process insulin – affects men and women equally, but women face different challenges and risks. Women are at a higher risk for diabetes-related blindness and heart disease than men, 3 and are also more likely to develop diabetes in conjunction with depression.4
Sub-Saharan Africa is home to a stunning variety of people and cultures, but certain health problems exist across the region. Many of these countries are low-income or developing, and so they lack the physical and social infrastructure to manage environmental health problems. The two major concerns here are water-borne illnesses and indoor air pollution.
Water-borne illnesses like worms and diarrheal diseases are very common, especially in rural areas, because there are no waste management and water treatment systems in place. Water sources are often contaminated with human and animal waste, and parasites are not uncommon either.5 Some of these diseases only last a few days, but some – like River Blindness – last a lifetime. Water-borne illnesses affect all people, but it’s worth noting that women in water-scarce regions spend hours each day carrying water across unsafe terrain, which leaves them vulnerable to animal attacks, injuries, assault, and rape.
Indoor air pollution from burning biomass fuels (wood, plant matter, animal dung, coal, and certain oils) is the leading cause of environment-related death worldwide. The soot and smoke produced by those fuels irritate the eyes, throats, and lungs, and can lead to chronic, life-threatening illnesses. Women in this region often spend most of their time in the home, either cooking over or being warmed by burning biomass fuels. According to the World Health Organization, this level of pollution exposure is roughly the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, so it isn’t surprising that these women are very susceptible to diseases like pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, and lung cancer.6
Women in South Asia face two major health threats: indoor air pollution (similar to Sub-Saharan Africa) and mental illness. Biomass is the main fuel source in poorer areas, but unlike in Sub-Saharan Africa, these areas are often densely populated so the air outside of the home is polluted, as well. Still, women who spend their time indoors are disproportionately affected by pollution-related illnesses because they are much more heavily exposed to the smoke and soot.6
Mental illness isn’t a valid health concern in many parts of South Asian, particularly in southern and rural parts of India, and since women are already often seen as second-class citizens, it is very hard for a mentally ill woman to get the help she needs. Mental illness, especially depression and anxiety, is frequently linked to the cultural pressure to succeed. Academic success, economic success, and family success (finding a good spouse, having children, and supporting your older relatives) are all very culturally important, but they are significant stressors. Because these matters are deeply ingrained in the culture, women are expected to simply deal with the stress, and a failure to do so is seen as weakness, laziness, or selfishness. Mentally ill women often suffer neglect or abuse at the hands of their families, and as women are still generally considered to be the property of their fathers or husbands, the legal system will take little to no action on their behalf.7
Tropical regions suffer a wealth of mosquito-borne diseases, but none have more strongly gendered implications right now than Zika virus. It’s seen a South American disease, but it actually originated in Uganda, popped up in the equatorial zones of Africa and Asia, hopped over to Micronesia in 2007, and then finally crossed the Pacific Ocean to South America last year.8 People who get infected don’t suffer severe symptoms, but a major complication is microcephaly. If a pregnant woman contracts Zika, there’s a very good chance that her baby will be born with an underdeveloped head and brain, putting it at risk for significant mental and physical disability. Women in Zika-heavy regions are being encouraged to refrain from becoming pregnant, possibly for the next few years, or until the disease can be brought under control. While this understandably complicates family life, it’s a particularly sticky issue in Brazil, where the dominant Catholic religion forbids the use of any form of contraception.9
- “WHO | Gender Empowerment and Female-to-Male Smoking Prevalence Ratios.” WHO. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
- Friss, Robert H., and Thomas A. Sellers. Epidemiology for Public Health Practice. 5th Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning, 2014. 171. Print.
- “Diabetes | Womenshealth.gov.” N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
- Pan, An et al. “Bidirectional Association Between Depression and Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Women.” Archives of Internal Medicine21 (2010): 1884–1891. jamanetwork.com. Web.
- Nadakavukaren, Anne. “Water Pollution.” Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective. 7th Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2011. 443-46. Print.
- Nadakavukaren, Anne. “Air Pollution.” Our Global Environment: A Health Perspective. 7th Long Grove, IL: Waveland, 2011. 373-74. Print.
- Malhotra, Savita, and Ruchita Shah. “Women and Mental Health in India: An Overview.” Indian Journal of PsychiatrySuppl 2 (2015): S205–S211. PubMed Central. Web.
- “WHO | Zika Virus.” WHO. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2016. (8)
- “Brazilian Catholic Official: Do Not Use Birth Control to Combat Zika.” co.uk. N.p., 4 Feb. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.