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You may wonder if there’s any difference between women’s health issues and men’s health issues, especially when it comes to diseases that anybody and everybody can get. But the fact is that women and men are biologically different; almost every health issue in the world affects men and women differently. 

There are many diseases that affect women exclusively, because menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause are stages of life only they deal with. So, gynecological issues like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pregnancy issues like miscarriage, etc. happen only to women, and need special medical attention as well as awareness.

In most cultures around the world, women have a lower social status than men - one of the main reasons why women’s health issues are under-researched, and their treatment and care is under-funded or not focused on enough. Social stigma, lack of empowerment, access to education and public health facilities lead to an increased vulnerability among female populations, especially in developing countries.

This is the reason why the World Health Organization (WHO), federal governments of most nations and charitable public health institutions are now choosing to focus especially on eradicating gender disparity to throw more light on the health issues that women face.

  1. Why women’s health needs to be an area of focus
  2. Factors that make women’s health more vulnerable
  3. Top 10 women’s health issues

Why women’s health needs to be an area of focus

According to the United Nations Population Projection, women make up 49.6 percent of the current world population. A study published in the journal of Health Care Women International in 2011 shows that women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and yet earn only 10 percent of the world’s income - and this data does not account for the unpaid domestic labour women, especially housewives, contribute towards globally. 

Despite being such a huge part of the world’s population and contributing to the entire world’s development, women - and their health - do not get the attention they deserve. Women are biologically and behaviourally different from men, which means that their needs cannot be fulfilled by a 'one-size-fits-all' attitude towards public health awareness, research, treatment and policies. 

Women’s health issues need to be understood better and treated better, more so because their good health (or the lack of it) plays an important role in the creation of the next generation of humans. The need to focus on women’s health is urgent, especially since there are a number of health issues that women face differently, and some even exclusively.

  1. Diseases that affect women exclusively
  2. Diseases that affect women differently

Diseases that affect women exclusively

Since women are biologically different from men, they experience biological stages like menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth and menopause which men don’t. This is the reason why there are a number of medical conditions and health issues that women deal with exclusively. The following are some of these problems which only women face:

Diseases that affect women differently

There are many health issues and conditions that both men and women have in common, but affect women differently. In these cases, the symptoms may be similar but the effects of the condition and care needed to treat as well as recover from it are also different. The following are some such diseases that affect women differently from men:

  • While men are more likely to become dependent on alcohol in their lifetime, the effects of alcohol abuse and alcoholism in women can be more serious since they increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease and fetal alcohol syndrome (where the mother’s drinking habits lead to brain damage in babies).
  • Heart diseases affect men and women equally, but women are more likely to die following a heart attack than men. This is also partially due to the fact that women experience delays in both emergency care and treatment for cholesterol issues.
  • Women are more prone to depression and anxiety than men, and certain types like postpartum depression exclusively affect women.
  • Arthritis is likely to have more serious effects on women than men, especially if the condition is spurred by lifelong calcium deficiency.
  • Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) affect both men and women, but delay in treatment can cause infertility in women. STIs often go untreated in women because the symptoms are not always as severe as in the case of men, and can be confused with minor issues like yeast infection.
  • According to a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA), stress is on the rise among women and can have unique effects on them, like infertility.
  • More women than men suffer from strokes every year. This is because while men and women share most causes of strokes (like family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol), women might also suffer them due to birth control pills, pregnancy and hormone replacement therapies.
  • Women are more likely to suffer from urinary tract infections (UTIs) than men, because of the way the female urinary tract is structured.

Factors that make women’s health more vulnerable

Women make up for half the population of the world, and yet, in many countries including India, their health issues do not receive enough focus or care. There are a few reasons behind this lack of attention, and the following factors play a huge role in contributing to this situation.

  1. Socio-cultural factors
  2. Economic factors
  3. Scientific and medical research factors

Socio-cultural factors

Women in most cultures, especially developing ones, have a lower status than men and do not enjoy the same rights. This gender inequality reduces women’s access to education, economic and social independence and healthcare. Women in these societies do not enjoy the right to travel alone, access healthcare without permission, and might not have a say in family planning.

The preference given to the male child in these cultures not only leads to female foeticide and infanticide, but also to a lifelong neglect of hygiene, nutrition and safe health practices. Cultural practices like female genital mutilation and attitudes towards sexual health and violence against women (whether it’s to do with rape or sexual abuse) also make it difficult for women from these cultures to access healthcare facilities without stigma.

Economic factors

According to a 2013 report by UN Women and the World Bank, women and children form a large part of the world’s poverty-stricken population of 767 million people. Poverty is linked to poor health practices and limited or no access to public healthcare systems. This places women at an especially disadvantageous position.

Additionally, as the study by the journal of Health Care Women International in 2011 shows, despite putting in two-thirds of the world’s working hours, women earn only 10 percent of the world’s income. This gender pay gap also contributes significantly to the gender disparity in health.

Scientific and medical research factors

According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2003, women have been traditionally underrepresented in clinical trials, which formed the basis of major advancements in medicine, treatments and healthcare technologies.

Another study published in BMC Women’s Health revealed that women’s health issues were confined to reproductive and maternal health in the world’s leading general medicine as well as women’s health speciality journals. This lack of scientific and medical research into diseases that (exclusively or differently) plague women contributed largely to the lack of general and specialised awareness about their conditions and how to treat them.

Top 10 women’s health issues

With increased research into women’s health issues in the last two decades, WHO’s Universal Health Coverage strategy to completely eliminate gender disparity in health since 2019, and new public health policies of federal governments in many nations, women’s health is now in focus. While this focus is much needed, there are a few key areas of women’s health that need urgent attention. The following are the top 10 women’s health issues that countries across the world, and especially India, should be focusing on in the coming years.

  1. Cancer
  2. Reproductive health
  3. Maternal health
  4. HIV/AIDS
  5. Sexually transmitted diseases
  6. Violence against women
  7. Mental health
  8. Non-communicable diseases
  9. Young age
  10. Old age

Cancer

There are two types of cancers women are particularly at risk of: breast cancer and cervical cancer. Globally, about half a million women die of each of these cancers every year. Detecting these cancers early can give women a fighting chance at survival, but achieving this would require:

  • Awareness about breast and cervical cancer, especially prevention
  • Cheap and easy access to cancer screenings and treatments
  • Vaccination against the human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Elimination of stigma attached to mastectomy in the case of breast cancer

Reproductive health

Even though female reproductive health has been the focus of studies, their highlight has been to eliminate infertility rather than looking at how diseases and disorders of the reproductive system have long-lasting ill-effects on women’s health in general. The female reproductive system is complex, and while UTIs and bacterial infections may not affect a woman’s ability to bear children, it can lead to a plethora of other diseases in the long run. To emphasise on the importance of reproductive health, the following things must be done:

  • Eliminate stigma attached to discussions about reproductive health
  • Spread awareness about more details of reproductive health rather than just reproduction
  • De-stigmatise the use of contraceptives, and provide cheap and easy access to them
  • Offer sex education to all prepubescent and pubescent children irrespective of gender
  • De-stigmatise abortion and eliminate avenues of unsafe abortion

Maternal health

Proper prenatal and postnatal care isn’t just about ensuring the health of infants. These types of healthcare can improve women’s health immensely while reducing the numbers of maternal deaths globally. Doctors and caregivers have a huge role to play in this regard, but the role of friends and family is also important. The following steps should be taken to promote maternal health:

  • Proper information about prenatal and postnatal care should be disseminated
  • Cheap and easy access to screenings, tests and vaccinations before and during pregnancy
  • Emphasis should be laid on nutrition, exercise and maternal mental health
  • Compulsory counselling and care should be provided in case of miscarriage or stillbirth
  • Stress or stigma attached to birth of the girl child should be eliminated

HIV/AIDS

It is due to a lack of awareness and due diligence on the part of public healthcare systems that young women are more at risk of contracting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) even after three decades have passed since humankind first faced these diseases. Sex education, access to condoms and de-stigmatisation of HIV/AIDS are the only ways to eliminate this epidemic, so steps should be taken to familiarise women with these diseases immediately.

Sexually transmitted diseases

Apart from HIV/AIDS and HPV, women are also at risk of STIs like gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis. Since the symptoms do not manifest in women the same way as they do in men, the likelihood of STIs going untreated are high in the case of women. Not only do these infections lead to complications in women’s health, but can also lead to complications in childbirth and infant health. The following steps should be taken to eliminate the occurrence of STIs in women:

  • Compulsory and comprehensive sex education should be provided
  • Stigma around the use of condoms, contraceptives, and the diagnosis and treatment of STIs should be eliminated 
  • Cheap and safe access to condoms, contraceptives and medications for STIs should be provided

Violence against women

According to the WHO, one in three women under the age of 50 has experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of a partner, acquaintance or a stranger. Whether the violence is physical or sexual in nature, it inevitably leads to physical and mental health issues - both in the short and long term. Female genital mutilation, rape, acid attacks, molestation, etc. have an irrevocable effect on women’s health, and the following should be done to eliminate these:

  • Educating both men and women about the ill-effects of violence from an early age
  • Organising training programmes to facilitate behavioural and attitudinal change among boys and men
  • Sensitisation of police and medical professionals about violence against women
  • Policies that guarantee justice, counselling and rehabilitation to survivors of violence

Mental health

Women, according to WHO, are more prone to mental health issues like depression, anxiety and psychosomatic complaints (psychologically-induced physical symptoms that cannot be explained medically). Many of these mental health issues can be crippling with long term effects on the quality of life, and problems like depression are also a leading cause of suicides. This is why ensuring good mental health practices among women is a necessity, and the following steps can be taken to achieve it:

  • De-stigmatise conversations around, diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues
  • Sensitise women to mental health issues and the risk factors
  • Build confidence among women to seek medical assistance
  • Offer support at individual and societal levels to those facing mental health problems

Non-communicable diseases

The spread of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, etc. is on the rise among women globally. The WHO’s strategies to achieve Universal Health Coverage focus on eliminating these diseases among women. The following steps should be taken to eliminate non-communicable diseases among women:

  • Spread awareness about non-communicable diseases 
  • Help girls and women adopt better lifestyles with proper nutrition, exercise and mental health
  • Cheap and easy access to public healthcare systems

Young age

The girl child is particularly at risk of developing lifestyle habits that can lead to serious illnesses later, and most (because of cultural or social disparities) do not get access to healthcare systems, proper nutrition and health education since early childhood. This can also lead to reproductive health challenges, like STIs, UTIs, HIV and teenage pregnancies - which in turn can lead to a number of complications including birth defects like spina bifida. Here are a few steps that should be taken in this regard:

  • Educate the girl child about her own health
  • Encourage parents to follow safe health and hygiene practices
  • Make cheap healthcare easily accessible
  • Sensitise the population about the specific needs of a girl child

Old age

Older women in most developing societies have almost never worked outside the home, which makes it impossible for them to have access to pensions, health insurances and benefits. Add poverty and lower status of women to this mix, and you can understand why health issues faced by older women rarely get any focus. Chronic diseases like arthritis, osteoporosis, cataracts, dementia, glaucoma and kidney diseases are common among older women. The following steps should be taken to provide healthcare to old women:

  • Sensitise younger generations about ageing and all that comes with it
  • Cheap/free and easily accessible healthcare should be provided
  • Build support systems or communities for women to rely on during old age
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