A Human Rights-Based Approach to Women’s Health

Today, on International Women’s Day, people and organizations around the world pay tribute to women’s contributions to our social, economic, cultural and political lives. But we also recognize that progress on gender parity continues to face obstacles. Health care is one area where women’s and girls’ ability to make decisions about their own bodies affect their ability to improve their health and future.

Women’s Rights as Human Rights

In Women’s Empowerment and Global Health: A Twenty-First-Century Agenda, editors Shari L. Dworkin, Monica Gandhi, and Paige Passano—with the support of the University of California’s Global Health Institute’s (UCGHI) Center for Expertise (COE) on Women’s Health and Empowerment (WHE)—bring together work on women’s empowerment in health. The book shows how the idea of women’s rights as human rights is not new, coming into view during:

… the flurry of international activity in the 1990s, spurred largely by women’s rights organizations from around the globe, that international instruments recognized the links between women’s health and gender equality. For example, these instruments began to recognize sexual and reproductive health and rights and the right to be free from gender-based violence as key components to full realization of women’s human rights. The approach of the 1990s represented a more inclusive approach, emphasizing the right to health services as well as the right to access key material and social determinants such as clean water and adequate housing, sanitation, and nutrition. This human rights–based approach to health used sexuality and reproduction as central themes in shaping gender inequality, while also addressing violations of women’s human rights by directing attention to the issue of bodily integrity. It emphasized laws, policies, and programs that would both advance gender equality and advance sexual and reproductive health and rights. …

Part of the challenge of linking health, human rights, and gender equality is the sometimes stark difference in perspectives, approaches, methodologies, and language used by those in the health sciences and the social sciences and those working in the realms of law, policy, and human rights advocacy.

The volume includes several short videos, produced by local filmmakers, that highlight the immediate need from a human rights perspective.

Now and For the Future

The editors and contributors discuss key findings, which include:

  1. realizing that it is not adequate to view global health programs through the lens of a one-size-fits-all strategy
  2. the necessity to meaningfully involve local community members to ensure that problem definitions and solutions emerge from those who are most affected by a lack of resources, agency, and achievements
  3. understanding the mechanisms and pathways through which empowerment shapes health and vice versa
  4. the need for multi-sectoral work, whereby sectors that may or may not have previously worked together join forces to make change.

The next generation of work will also need to press beyond global health approaches with women and men that focus exclusively on gender; it will need to consider the racialized, classed, and sexualized nature of empowerment and health. Intersectionality reveals how it is not just gender relations but also its simultaneity with race, class, sexuality, age, and other key axes of inequality and marginalization that matter for empowerment and health outcomes. For example, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women have issues that impact them as women and also as sexual minorities; a gender analysis is necessary but not sufficient, to understand the health implications of these intersecting forces. Global health scholars have been slow to embrace intersectional think-ing, which in contrast emerged over twenty-five years ago in law, in the humanities, and in the social sciences. It took until 2005–2006 to focus on intersectionality as key to understanding health outcomes and it remains critical to continue to understand this.

Learn More

Learn more about UCGHI’s Center for Expertise (COE) on Women’s Health and Empowerment (WHE) and how it was established to help push scholars and practitioners to expand their perspectives, and work collaboratively to produce knowledge and educational programs that benefit from a multi-disciplinary perspective.

Stay up-to-date with World Health Organization’s for Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health.

And read our other posts on Women Authors and Their Pledge for Parity and A Clear Path for Women’s Rights as Human Rights.