The summer of 1984 saw a landmark conference on women’s health in Cairo, Egypt. The conference wasn’t billed as such – it was called the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) – but its recommendations were radical in its message: that women’s sexual and reproductive rights are central to family planning and population development.
Riding high on the waves of feminism from the 1960s and 1970s, this was a promising step in the right direction. But though it did change the way the world thought of women’s health, its promise was cut short by several factors.
For instance, the AIDS epidemic burst onto the global health agenda at around the same time, and most health dollars were being funnelled into fighting this disease ravaging the world. And so, women’s rights slipped out of sight, and out of mind.
The past few years has seen an upsurge in interest in women’s health again, partly because maternal health got a mention on the Millennium Development Goals. But therein lies the rub. Suddenly, women’s health became all about maternal health. It’s true that pregnancy, in the developing world especially, is a time in a women’s life when her health is most vulnerable. And her poor health could also threaten the health of her baby.
But a woman isn’t just a baby-making machine. Women’s sexual and reproductive health encompasses far more than maternal health – it includes sexual rights, sexual health (in terms of avoiding sexually transmitted diseases), and the menopause. These areas outside of maternal health are badly neglected because they don’t fit with the current agenda.
Now, scientists and policymakers are starting to re-frame women’s health in an economic context. Women are the glue that holds society together, and studies show that when women’s health is focused on, the whole family, and therefore the whole nation, benefits. This seems hard to argue with, but it’s a poor reason to advocate for women’s health. Women have the right to good health for their own sake, not just because they’re a useful cog in a country’s economic wheel. The ICPD in Cairo already showed us that rights needs to be at the heart of women’s health, but we may need another revolution to remind of us that.
This post originally appeared on the website of COHRED/Global Forum for Health Research for its 2012 forum in Cape Town