Although access to higher education and the labor market has improved the overall health of women, social inequalities in health remain disappointingly large (McDonough, P et al. 2015, Advances in Life Course Research). Despite the promise of governments and health departments, the roots of these inequalities in women’s health remain throughout the life span.
It is a well accepted conclusion that lack of education, unemployment and other factors are detrimental to women’s health. There is ample evidence across societies, independent of countries, that social and economic disadvantages during childhood affect adult health. Low parental education, income, parental divorce and living in a one-parent household are positively associated with early mortality, poor physical health and poor psychological health of women during adulthood.
Strengthening health services by increasing access to education and knowledge helps to empower women. The following are basic elements that serve to improve overall health.
- Opportunities for higher education and professional training;
- Opportunities for employment and income generation;
- Participation/representation in social, professional and political institutions;
- Promotion of autonomy;
- Increased mobility;
- Access to credit;
- Ownership of properties, assets and businesses;
- Food security and health.
Food insecurity is also associated with important factors related to women’s mental health and well-being. Food security is defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as “access by all people at all times to enough nutritious food for an active, healthy life.” According to USDA data from 2009, 14.7% of American households were food insecure, with higher proportions reported by those with children headed by a single woman (37%) and by Blacks (25%) and Hispanics (27%).
Despite the fact that women contribute to one-half of the world’s food production, they have more difficulty than men in accessing resources. Although the precise reasons for a stronger effect of food insecurity on women are unclear, it is well recognized that some women may sacrifice their own nutritional resources in order to protect their children from hunger.
Several strategies have been employed to supplement micronutrients for women and children (Das, JK. 2013. Systematic Reviews). These include education, dietary modification, food rationing, supplementation and fortification. Food fortification is one of the strategies that has been used safely and effectively to prevent micronutrient deficiencies and has been practiced in developed countries for over a century.
A multifaceted approach is needed to improve women’s health around the world. This strategy should include both short-term assistance to women suffering from food insecurity, and longer-term development of strategies that will improve livelihoods. Overall, solutions should ensure that women have the same economic opportunities, access to land, and economic power as men.
“Rigorous monitoring and evaluation of existing programs, disaggregation of existing data by sex, and standardization of a food-security measurement tool,” can help add to this body of evidence, according to Das et al. Integration of fortification and supplementation strategies together with other mother and child health programs may be the best answer at this stage to address the widespread global under-nutrition problem and to ensure sustainable health of women in developing nations.
Dilip Ghosh, PhD, FACN, is director of nutriConnect, based in Sydney, Australia. He is also professionally involved with Soho Flordis International, the University of Western Sydney, Australia, and is an Honorary Ambassador with the Global Harmonization Initiative (GHI). Dr. Ghosh received his PhD in biomedical science from University of Calcutta, India. He has been involved in drug-development (both synthetic and natural) and functional food research and development both in academic and industry domains. Dr. Ghosh has published more than 60 papers in peer-reviewed journals, and he has authored two recent books, “Biotechnology in Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals,” and “Innovation in Healthy and Functional Foods,” under CRC Press. His next book, “Clinical Perspective of Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals” is in press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; www.nutriconnect.com.au.