Calling for a new agenda for women's health

10 February 2016

Portrait of Professor Robyn Norton

by Professor Robyn Norton
Professor of Global Health

Oxford Martin Senior Alumni FellowRobyn Norton is co-founder and Principal Director of The George Institute for Global Health, a not-for-profit medical research institute that aims to increase the provision of safe, effective and affordable healthcar...

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For decades, global women’s health policy has been centered on sexual and reproductive health. Governments, global governing bodies - such as the World Health Organization and the World Bank - and many NGOs, have developed a laser-like focus on reducing the scourge of maternal mortality and morbidity.

The good news is that global efforts have worked.

Significant gains have been made in saving the lives of women and children. As a result of the Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health, launched by the UN in 2010, an estimated 2.4 million deaths of women and children have been averted in the last five years alone.

The bad news is that we are stuck with an outdated operating framework that too often limits the definition of a woman’s health to her sexual and reproductive wellbeing. And the majority of global dollars assigned for women’s health is still focused on sexual and reproductive health.

The fact is that in all but the poorest countries, the greatest health burden is now non-communicable diseases (NCDs), accounting for seven of the 10 leading causes of death for women worldwide. NCDs, such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes, kill more than 18 million women a year globally.

The gains made in reducing maternal mortality and morbidity should be promoted, celebrated and sustained. But we need to move the women’s health agenda beyond a primary focus on sexual and reproductive health issues. If global leaders do not broaden and redefine the agenda, progress in improving women’s health will slide. Unless the primary killers of women—NCDs—are prioritised, then health investments could lead to a decreasing return for women’s health overall and will only benefit a small slice of the female population who are of childbearing years.

In addition to a broader women’s health agenda, we need a shift in focus by health administrators and the scientific and academic communities to ensure a gendered approach to the analysis of health data. As we deepen our understanding of how the human body works, we know that men’s and women’s bodies are affected differently by disease and respond in different way to possible interventions. We are also beginning to understand that both access to care and the quality of care in our health systems is not the same for men and women. Yet, far too commonly, there is no delineation of gender in health data, and women are under-represented in many scientific and clinical studies.

At The George Institute, we believe that a person's health and life expectancy shouldn’t be determined by geography, socioeconomic status, fate or gender. As a result, we are producing a series of policy papers aimed at igniting a global public conversation about the women’s health agenda and ultimately driving policy changes that will save lives. We are also conducting a range of studies, across our offices in Australia, China, India and the UK, that focus on better understanding differences in disease occurrence and outcomes in men and women, and facilitate the development of prevention and management strategies aimed at improving the health of women globally.

Women’s Health: A New Global Agenda, published on 10 February and launched at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Global Health, UK Parliament.

This opinion piece reflects the views of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the position of the Oxford Martin School or the University of Oxford. Any errors or omissions are those of the author.