Women’s access to quality health care at every age

Many issues raised by Dr Faysal El Kak, Vice President of FIGO during our participation at Women Deliver 2019, aligned with Beijing Platform for Action Strategic Objective C1, which aims to increase women’s access to appropriate, affordable and quality health care throughout the life cycle.

Girls and adolescents’ health needs

While women’s health needs overlap between different life stages, girl children and adolescents face a number of specific health challenges, including:

  • greater vulnerability than boys to sexual violence, and to the consequences of unprotected and premature sexual contact
  • HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, as adolescent girls often do not have the power to insist on safe sex
  • harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage
  • early childbearing, which not only affects wellbeing and health outcomes but limits educational and economic opportunity.

Strategic Objectives C1 and C2 of the Beijing Platform for Action recommend specific actions to protect and promote the health of girls and young women, which include:

  • giving particular attention to the needs of girls, and taking specific measures for closing the gender gaps in mortality and sickness rates where girls are disadvantaged
  • ensuring that girls have continuing access to health and nutrition information and services as they mature
  • promoting educational programmes that aim to eliminate harmful attitudes and practices, including female genital mutilation, son preference, and early marriage.

Women’s health in adulthood

The Beijing Platform for Action identifies several areas of women’s health which require urgent action from national governments and the global community.

Reproductive and maternal health

Strategic Objective C1 calls for improved access to quality sexual and reproductive healthcare, on the basis of the report of the International Conference on Population and Development, including:

  • safe and effective family planning methods
  • reliable information and compassionate counselling for women who have an unwanted pregnancy
  • safe abortion, and post abortion care
  • prenatal, emergency obstetric, and postnatal care.

Violence against women

Formal and informal public education programmes about sexual health and violence against women should be prioritised, to help to raise awareness and change attitudes and behaviours. Strategic Objective C1 also calls on governments to train primary health workers to recognise and care for girls and women of all ages who have experienced any form of violence.

Environmental health and occupational health

Governments must act to reduce and eliminate environmental and occupational health hazards associated with work in the home, in the workplace and elsewhere, especially for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Mental health

Mental health services should be integrated into primary healthcare systems and access to treatment and rehabilitation services should be improved for women with substance abuse problems and their families.

Older women’s health concerns

As life expectancy increases, the number of older women with health needs is rising. The later life health prospects of women are influenced by changes at menopause, but lifelong conditions and other factors such as poor nutrition and lack of physical activity can combine to have a larger impact.

Older women are at increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis, among other age-related illnesses, and may become disabled, or become more vulnerable to gender-based violence.

Strategic Objective C1 recommends developing information, programmes, and services to assist women to understand and adapt to changes associated with ageing, and to actively address and treat the health needs of older women, especially those who are dependent on others.

Action to improve healthcare for women of all ages

As well as focusing on women’s health needs at different life stages, Strategic Objective C1 outlines a number of measures which will benefit women’s health across all age groups, such as:

Women’s health needs change over the course of their life. There is increasing awareness of the need for healthcare to be both gender and age sensitive; now it’s time to act and create health systems that work for women at every age.