This year, the International Day of Action for Women's Health, hopes to kickstart a worldwide initiative to ensure that every woman on the planet gets what is rightfully hers - the right to live healthy and be the mistress of her destiny- a right, which is regrettably denied to many in this male dominated world. It is a crusade for Urgent Action on women's health and basic rights and it carries the theme, "Our Bodies, Our Lives, And Our Health: For the Right and Freedom to Choose".
Notwithstanding distinction of age, race, ethnicity, religion, and culture, what is the one aspect common to all women worldwide? It is a bad example of unity in diversity, but gender inequality is the sibling most women are born with. In the throes of a deep- rooted patriarchal system, many women face cruelty, violence and abuse from their partners. This condition impacts their health negatively, which is the overriding concern of activists spearheading the cause of women worldwide.
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Women have a right to live healthy and make decisions about their lives without coercion, abuse and violence. To achieve this goal, the following objectives have been charted out for International Day of Action for Women's Health 2008.
• Champion the rights of women to be the mistress of their own bodies and equip them to take responsible, free and informed decisions without fear, domination and violence.
• Condemn the various types of control women are subjected to - in the form of laws, social practices or by individuals, that belittles control over their lives.
• Campaign for the protection of woman's lives and health by developing policies, programs and laws to protect women.
• Encourage individual and societal change in the attitude towards women, promoting respect for women's rights - over their own bodies and lives.
Violence and HIV/AIDS
'One of the most powerful HIV vaccines today is women's empowerment ... it is the key to reversing the epidemic.'---UNIFEM
One of the worst public health issues facing womankind, along with abject poverty and gender discrimination is violence and HIV /AIDS.
Many women can never say 'no' to sex, or decide when and how sexual intercourse should take place. Most of them are unable to insist on protection before sexual intercourse due to threats of violence, open or perceived, by their partners, which cause them to lead lives of subjugation. Playing to the whims of the partner against their will, drains women both physically and mentally. Men who are promiscuous add to the woes, as women get roped in unwittingly into the world of Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs).
According to UNAIDS, women form the largest group of people fighting HIV/AIDS. Estimating the numbers of disadvantaged woman in regions of Eastern and Southern Africa, Human Rights Watch found that girls between 15 to 17 carried a four to seven times heightened risk of HIV, as compared to boys in the same age group.
Several studies conducted worldwide to gauge the extent of violence and coercion in relationships showed that 10 - 50% of women are victims of physical assault by their spouses or partners. Further, one-third of them also reported being victims of coerced sex.
A study conducted in Zimbabwe showed that:
• 12% of women were forced to have sex, even while they were asleep
• 38% of women were often told, it was their duty to comply to sex anytime with their partners
• 6% were under constant threat of a potential separation from their partner
• 20% were verbally abused
• 23% were physically assaulted in their relationships.
In India, gender discrimination is apparent in the statistics -
• 70% of the children not going to schools are girls.
• 50% of the nation's girls are married before they turn 18.
• 45% of Indian women have no 'choice' in their relationship.
This can only lead to increased numbers of malnourished women, malnourished children and high rate of maternal mortality.
Impact of Violence on Women's Health
Women who suffer violence from their partners become victims of various mental and physical health problems, as revealed by a recent WHO study.
The study gauged the effects of physical and sexual violence on 25000 women from eleven countries, who were between the ages of 15 to 49. Exposure to physical or sexual violence from the partner was connected to poor health of women in general and a host of specific health problems - pain, difficulty to carry out daily activities, memory loss, inability to walk, depression, and excessive vaginal discharge.
Further, women who have experienced even one violent encounter with their partners were gripped with inordinate fear, and were unable to forget the episode. Many of them harbored distress and suicidal thoughts as compared to those who had never been abused by their partner.
What is worse is that education, marital status, geographical location or age did not make much difference in how women reacted to partner violence, most of them grappling a host of physical and mental health problems.
The study findings also show that violence in relationships lingers in their psyche much after the experience had ended.
"In addition to being a breach of human rights, the high prevalence of partner violence and its associations with poor health -- including implied costs in terms of health expenditures and human suffering -- highlight the urgent need to address partner violence in national and global health-sector policies and programs", researchers of this study concluded.
Aspiring for consummate national progress, skirting the issue of women's health is a shortsighted step. Women are endowed with innate qualities of nurturing families and relationships. It is from this foundation that roots of progress grow. Any achievement devoid of basic human rights, more specifically women's rights, is fraught with pitfalls and failure, akin to a bubble waiting to burst. It is time to Call for Action and take up the cudgels as the International Day of Action for Women's Health strives to do.