Gender inequality negatively impacts health of women and girls across the Western Pacific Region

News release

MANILA, 6 March 2013 -This International Women’s Day (8 March), the World Health Organization is drawing attention to the strong impact that gender equality has on the health of women and girls globally, including in the Western Pacific Region.

"Healthy girls and women make healthy families, communities and nations. More can and must be done to empower women and girls to ensure that health policies and programmes take women's and men's gender roles, norms and needs into account," said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "Without comprehensive action on gender equality, the right of women and girls to the highest attainable standard of health will remain a distant dream.”

International Women's Day has been observed since 1975. The day celebrates the economic, political and social achievements of women and renews calls for gender equality and women's empowerment. WHO reinforces its commitment to addressing gender inequality, promoting women's empowerment and improving their health throughout the life course.

“International Women’s Day 2014 is a timely opportunity to challenge the unequal systems, structures and practices that continue to perpetuate health inequalities,” noted Anjana Bhushan, Technical Officer with the Health in Development unit at the WHO Regional Office for the Western Pacific. “Previously, the bulk of work on women's health focused on pregnancy and childbirth. Today, public health is increasingly integrating gender perspectives and considering the different needs of women and men at all stages of policy and programme development and implementation.”

Health data highlight the significant differences between men and women—arising from both their biological and social differences—that exist across health conditions, risks and behaviours. For example, women are more likely to be obese than men, especially in many Pacific island countries. Prevalence of obesity in women in Nauru is 75%, 70% in Tonga and 69% in Cook Islands.

Compared to boys and men, girls and women are often disadvantaged in education, although increasing education for women has been shown to produce better health outcomes for them and their families. Substantial differences in literacy rates exist in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (men 82.5% and women 63.2%) and Papua New Guinea (men 63.6% and women 55.6%).

In most societies, women have lower social status than men, producing unequal power relations and health outcomes. Girls in the Western Pacific Region are more likely than boys—5.6% vs. 4.0%—to not receive vaccination. Women may also need the permission of men in the household to seek health care, or a male family member may need to accompany them to health-care facilities and providers, adding additional barriers to accessing health services. In Samoa and Solomon Islands, more than one in four women cited the need to obtain permission to go for treatment as a major barrier (29.4% and 27.5%, respectively), according to the Samoan Demographic and Health Survey and Solomon Islands Demographic and Health Survey.

Violence against women also remains a serious health issue in the Region. A growing body of evidence shows that as many as one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or abused in some other way by an intimate partner, a violation of rights resulting in staggering health consequences.

Not surprisingly, gender-based discrimination is deeply connected to negative health outcomes for women and girls. These poor outcomes are often compounded by other forms of inequality related to socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or geographical location.

“Empowering women and girls and ensuring their health and access to needed services and opportunities are critical not only for their own healthy futures, but also the futures of their families and communities,” concluded Dr Shin.