The Beijing Platform for Action, developed at a 1995 United Nations conference, set an agenda for women’s empowerment and identified 12 critical areas of concern. More than two decades after Beijing, ShareAmerica assesses global progress in each critical area. This article focuses on access to health care.

Unequal in health

Women may live longer than men, but on average they have poorer health. When mothers and daughters receive inferior nutrition and health care, girls’ long-term health and the well-being of future generations are harmed. Some examples:

  • Malnourished women deliver less-healthy babies.
  • Adolescent childbearing, common where child marriage is allowed, poses health risks and limits life prospects for the teen mothers and their children.
  • In places where sons are preferred, abortion of female fetuses and female infanticide produces a shortage of women relative to men, with potentially alarming social consequences.

Where women receive inadequate care, pregnancy and childbirth are hazardous. About 800 pregnant women die unnecessarily each day. By contrast, where women have access to care for pregnancy and delivery, maternal deaths are extremely rare.

Newborn baby being presented to mother (© AP Images)
An Afghan mother and her newborn son at a hospital in Mazar-e-Sharif. Infant and maternal mortality rates are high in Afghanistan. (© AP Images)

Millions of women suffer physical injuries or long-term disabilities from lack of proper care during pregnancy and childbirth. We have the knowledge to prevent these deaths and injuries. What’s needed is the resources and the will to overcome substandard health systems, gender bias and political inertia.

HIV/AIDS also threatens women’s health. Women who for economic or other reasons lack the power to insist on safe sex are particularly vulnerable to infection.

Positive recent trends

The World Health Organization reports that maternal deaths have been cut nearly in half since 1990. Today, women marry later throughout the developing world. Many delay first births and have fewer children than their mothers did. More girls are staying in school and more women practice family planning. Yet one report notes that worldwide “225 million women have an unmet need for modern contraception.”

Mother carrying child, other women around her (Karin Schermbrucher/Courtesy of mothers2mothers)
“Mentor mothers” educate and support women at a mothers2mothers group session in Nsinze, Uganda. (Karin Schermbrucher/Courtesy of mothers2mothers)

What can be done?

There’s been great progress in countries that have prioritized women’s health. It’s important for women to speak out about their health care needs so more policymakers will take action.

Programs like mothers2mothers make a difference by educating HIV-positive women like the one in this video. Another, Teresa Njeri from Nairobi, Kenya, is among many who now lead normal lives with healthy children. She helps other HIV-positive women get to the treatment they need. Once ostracized, today Njeri is a landowner. “I feel like a star,” she says.

It’s important to draw attention to inequalities between men’s and women’s care.

Salwa Al-Najjab holding a microphone (State Dept.)
Dr. Salwa Al-Najjab’s life’s work has been to bring medical care to women in underserved communities. (State Dept.)

Palestinian health care activist Dr. Salwa Al-Najjab did just that in the Palestinian Territories. She established clinics in remote areas and headed the Juzoor (Roots) Foundation for Health and Social Development. Al-Najjab learned from her work in Al-Maqasid Hospital: “If I wanted to provide health care to women, I had to go to them, wherever they were.”