Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

Fact Sheet No. 3

Women and Health

Good health and well-being continue to elude the majority of the world's women. Throughout their life cycle, women in many countries have unequal access to basic health resources. Girls often receive less attention than boys in the prevention and treatment of childhood diseases. In adolescence and throughout their reproductive years, women lack adequate counselling and access to sexual and reproductive health services. The result is an increased risk of unwanted and early pregnancy, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases, as well as unsafe abortions and complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Women's right to the highest standard of physical and mental health was recognized by the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. The Platform for Action, adopted by the Conference, highlighted the need to ensure universal access to appropriate, affordable and quality health care and services for women and girls as one of the 12 critical areas of concern requiring urgent attention by governments and the international community.

During its forty-third session in 1999, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women proposed further action to be taken to improve the quality of women's health, including the mainstreaming of a gender perspective in all policies and programmes in the health sector. Among the agreed conclusions of the session were recommendations on women and infectious diseases, mental health, occupational and environmental health - areas that had received little attention at the Beijing Conference.

Risking Death when Giving Birth

Every minute of every day, a woman dies because of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. The majority of these deaths are preventable. The primary contributing factor is women's lack of equal access to health care and, specifically, life-saving obstetric care. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the annual global estimated toll is close to 600,000 deaths and eight million cases of disability from pregnancy-related causes.

Since the Beijing Conference, states and international organizations have reported an increase in the number of assisted childbirths and in the training offered to doctors and birth attendants.
In Nigeria, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has supported a project to reduce maternal mortality by training 2,000 traditional birth attendants to assist women who do not have their deliveries in health care facilities.
Peru has launched a pilot programme called "10 steps for a healthy birth", designed to identify and strengthen weak points in the health care system.

  • In Indonesia, the development of mother-friendly areas and hospitals has succeeded in mobilizing community resources for safe maternity, including the provision of village ambulances and maternity homes.
  • In Iran, "rural health houses" have been established in an effort to decentralize health care services and to reach rural and marginalized zones.
  • In Mexico, isolated populations have been given better access to health services through a telephone service called "Planificatel".
  • In Uganda, a rural emergency relief programme has helped to reduce maternal deaths and to increase the number of supervised deliveries via a referral system for emergency obstetric cases that links traditional birth attendants, health clinics and hospitals.

HIV/AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Diseases

The number of HIV infections among women continues to rise and is rapidly reaching and surpassing the number of infections among men. Of the 5.6 million newly-infected adults as of 1999, 2.3 million were women. The great majority of people infected with HIV, 95 per cent, live in developing countries where the situation has continued to deteriorate. This is especially true for Africa where the rate of HIV infections among women is now higher than for men. Women under 25 years of age are the most at risk.

The vulnerability of women to HIV/AIDS has been recognized as due to both biological and cultural factors, such as lack of knowledge and access to information, economic dependency and, in many cases, lack of control over the circumstances under which sex occurs. Access by infected women to health care, particularly in developing countries, is very limited because of diminishing health care spending and available resources being spent disproportionately on men. Many countries have also recognized the dangers linked to the spread of other sexually transmitted diseases which present a great risk to reproductive health, and can lead to infertility.

  • In the Dominican Republic, a project of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS provides women with information and education. The programme also trains health care providers and provides condoms.
  • Burkina Faso is pursuing a new strategy in its efforts to educate women about HIV/AIDS by training multipliers, such as health workers, in disseminating information on methods of protection.
  • Congo has introduced the female condom as a method of protection against sexually transmitted diseases and HIV infection.
  • Greece attributes a 1997 downward trend in the number of women suffering from AIDS to the free anti-retro viral treatment administered anonymously to all seropositive patients.
  • Djibouti has established a prevention centre for sexually transmitted diseases.
  • In Rwanda, special efforts have been made to provide medicines for sexually transmitted diseases.

In Control of Their Own Fertility

Although more women than ever before know of modern contraceptive methods, a huge gap persists between availability and usage. Cultural taboos and women's lack of knowledge about their bodies, as well as lack of autonomy to determine the size of their families, are major obstacles, particularly among rural women and teenagers.

Abortion is still considered to be the accepted and even primary birth control method in many countries, particularly in countries in transition. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), deaths as a result of unsafe abortion account for 13 per cent of maternal deaths globally, or an estimated 80,000 deaths a year. These deaths could be prevented by securing access for women to family planning information and services, as well as care for abortion-related complications. A number of countries have taken action in this regard:

  • The Russian Federation has introduced policies, including the increased availability of means of contraception, which have reduced the number of abortions.
  • India has replaced its target-driven approach to population control with another that empowers women and improves overall health, especially reproductive health, through informed choices.
  • New Zealand now provides two varieties of oral contraceptive free of charge.
  • Benin has introduced measures to raise awareness about the dangers of induced abortions.
  • Guyana, Portugal and the Russian Federation have further defined guidelines for the performance of abortions on social or medical grounds, or have extended the time frame within which abortions are allowed.

The need to increase men's involvement in reproductive health care and family planning, and to eliminate the misperception that these are merely women's problems, has been recognized. For example:

  • In India, efforts have been made to involve men in growth monitoring sessions for children and to provide them with information on childcare.
  • In a response to the interest expressed by men in the north west region of Namibia, UNFPA has led a series of discussion groups focusing on reproductive health and family planning.


Malnutrition, often caused by gender discrimination in food distribution, presents a grave threat to the health of women and girls. Iodine deficiency, which increases women's susceptibility to illness, pregnancy complications and maternal deaths, and anaemia affect a large number of women. According to estimates by WHO, 50 per cent of pregnant women worldwide are anaemic. Examples of action taken to counter this include:

  • It is now reported that 67 per cent of countries affected by iodine deficiency disorder have made progress towards achieving universal salt iodization.
  • In Burundi, iodine capsules are distributed to pregnant women and infants.
  • In Algeria, iron supplements have reduced anaemia from 40 percent in 1980 to 17 percent in 1996.
  • In the Philippines, a home and community food production programme has been introduced to improve and ensure family food security by providing seeds, seedlings and other planting material for kitchen gardens.

With increased female life expectancy and changes of life style, certain non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and other chronic and degenerative diseases, have become more common, in particular among older women. There is also growing recognition that women represent a large proportion of the estimated 400 million people with anxiety disorders and 340 million with mood disorders worldwide. Poverty, domestic isolation and overwork, powerlessness resulting from low levels of education and economic dependence, and violence in all its forms have an impact on the mental health and general well-being of the majority of women.

This fact sheet is based on "Review and Appraisal of the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action: Report of the Secretary-General" (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/C—May 2000