While women and men share many similar health challenges, the differences are such that the health of women deserves particular attention. Women generally live longer than men because of both biological and behavioural advantages. But in some settings, notably in parts of Asia, these advantages are overridden by gender-based discrimination so that female life expectancy at birth is lower than or equal to that of males.
Moreover, women’s longer lives are not necessarily healthy lives. There are conditions that only women experience and whose potentially negative impact only they suffer. Some of these – such as pregnancy and childbirth – are not diseases, but biological and social processes that carry health risks and require health care. Some health challenges affect both women and men,but have a greater or different impact on women and so require responses that are tailored specifically to women’s needs. Other conditions affect women and men more or less equally, but women face greater difficulties in getting the health care they need. Furthermore, genderbased inequalities – for example in education, income and employment – limit the ability of girls and women to protect their health.
Differences between high- and low-income countries While there are many commonalities in the health challenges facing women around the world, there are also striking differences due to the varied conditions in which they live. At every age, women in high-income countries live longer and are less likely to suffer from ill-health and premature mortality than those in low-income countries. In richer countries, death rates for children and young women are very low, and most deaths occur after 60 years of age. In poorer countries, the picture is quite different: the population is on average younger, death rates among children are higher, and most female deaths occur among girls, adolescents and younger adult women. The most striking difference between rich and poor countries is in maternal mortality – 99% of the more than half a million maternal deaths every year happen in developing countries. Not surprisingly, the highest burden of morbidity and mortality – particularly in the reproductive years – is concentrated in the poorest and often the institutionally weakest countries, particularly those facing humanitarian crises.
Inequalities within countries Within countries, the health of girls and women is critically affected by social and economic factors, such as access to education, household wealth and place of residence. In almost all countries, girls and women living in wealthier households have lower levels of mortality and higher use of health-care services than those living in the poorest households. Such differences are not confined to developing countries but are found in the developed world.