The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity". Women's health needs to be viewed as substantially more than just the health of their reproductive systems.
A womans health is significantly shaped and impacted by both biology and gender. Gender, or 'gender roles' are culturally defined and deeply embedded in the legal, religious and systemic structures and norms within society. The Australian Womens Health Network articulates that ...gender relations are multi-dimensional, interweaving relationships of power, economic arrangements, emotional relaitonships, systems of communication and meaning.
More broadly; the social determinants of health can be described as "the circumstances in which people (women) are born, grow up, live, work and age, and the systems put in place to deal with illness. These circumstances are in turn shaped by a wider set of forces: economics, social policies, and politics" WHO.
All of this highights the necessity of viewing women's health outcomes through a gender and social lens. While women on average live longer than men, research shows they are more likely to spend that extra time living in poverty and suffering from a chronic and disabling illness. This is even worse among certain groups of women;
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women live 17-20 years less than other Australian women;
- women with a disability experience high rates of poverty, are over-represented in institutional care, and experience difficulties in accessing health services;
- refugee women have multiple complex health problems, including: chronic diseases; reproductive health issues; blood disorders such as anaemia; the physical and mental health consequences of rape and sexual assault; depression; anxiety and grief.
The clear links between domestic and family violence and poor physical and mental health has been consistently demonstrated through research; and given the prevalence of the experience of violence against women, this is a significant health issue for women. A Victorian study found that intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15–44 years. Domesic and family violence is also associated with physical injury, somatic disorders, chronic disorders, chronic pain, gastrointestinal disorders, gynaecological issues and increased risk of sexually transmitted infections. In Queensland between 2013 and 2014; there were over 66, 000 reported occurences of domestic violence across the state, equating to 180 incidents every day; and thirty five % of murders across the state were related to domestic and family violence.
Key principles that underpin Women's health as defined by the Queensland Women's Health Network are:
- encouraging women to take control of their bodies (based on a full range of information and access to appropriate health care)
- collaborative decision making between women and their health care providers (with women deciding for themselves what happens to their bodies)
- a social model of health (that takes account of more than just body parts and recognises the context of women’s lives, e.g. the influence of social factors such as housing and employment on health and well-being).