Eliminating health inequities: Every woman and every child counts
Health inequities are “unfair and avoidable differences in health status seen within and between countries”. Health inequities are systematic: they usually affect particular groups of people, and they occur across the social gradient. The most vulnerable people have the least access, not only to health services, but also to the resources that contribute to good health.
Eliminating health inequities is an ethical imperative
Health is a resource that enables people to achieve their fullest potential. It is unjust for this potential to be determined by the place where a person is born, or the racial or ethnic group to which a person belongs. Fortunately, eliminating health inequities is also economically sound. Simple and cost-effective measures, when scaled up, lead to significantly better health for all. Failing to eliminate health inequities leaves the most vulnerable at greatest risk. Without prioritizing health inequities, UNICEF warns: “We could find ourselves in 2015 facing the tough challenges of reaching the most deprived children of all – but with resources depleted, political will exhausted and a public that has moved on.”
Focusing on women and children Women and children are the focus of our attention for three reasons.
Women are more likely to face health inequities because women’s biological make-up demands more care. Pregnancy and childbirth are life events that expose women to greater risks.
Women are the gateway to improving the health of an entire population, starting with their children and members of their households.
The burden of caring for sick children and the elderly mainly falls on mothers and other female carers. This leads to time off work, loss of income and further impoverishment of families. Poverty, in turn, cuts off access to the resources that give rise to good health, it precludes treatment for poor health, and perpetuates ill-health among women and children. A vicious downward spiral begins that is carried forward to the next generation.
Social inequalities compound biological differences
Wider power imbalances between men and women can prevent women from exercising control over their own health or the health of their children. Eliminating health inequities requires a holistic approach whereby the health impacts of all government policies and societal practices are recognized and addressed.