Working to Advance
Health Equity in Africa

International Day of Action for Women’s Health

International Day of Action for Women’s Health

Recognition of rights in the pursuit of equality in the social, economic and legal positions between genders, has been a long and complex struggle. Gender hierarchies, and their maintenance, within our societies continue to shape the health and well-being of women and girls globally. These social and interpersonal dynamics are a critical determinant in the enjoyment of autonomy as embodied in the international human rights framework.

Autonomy, which originates from the ancient Greek autos (self) and nomos (custom or law), refers to a person’s ability to make his/her own rules in life and make decisions independently. The question as to what extent autonomy can exist in ‘real life’, and in what form, has preoccupied many scholars as any external intervention on someone’s decisions or actions will unavoidably have impact on the exercise of “autonomy”.

A more nuanced way of understanding autonomy, against the backdrop of multiple expectations and pressures on women to conform, has been elaborated by feminist scholars such as MacKenzie and Stoljar and Nedelsky. They assert that the formation of identity and capacity for self-trust occurs on the basis of one’s social and relational ties; some give strength, some are ambiguous, while others may create obstacles. Thus, we depend on others for developing and exercising our autonomy.

It may therefore be hard to demarcate the individual from the ‘shared’ resolution in one’s action. In matters of reproductive health, for example, decisions on childbearing are influenced to a greater or lesser extent by a range of people such as the women’s sexual partner, family members, the doctor or midwife and peers. The conditionality of interdependence need not be problematic in the enjoyment of autonomy. However, it is clear that multiple structures continue to constrain the agency of women and girls in determining their own health and other aspects of their lives.

The International Day of Action for Women’s Health -on 28 May- draws our attention to the deepest forms of disregard for autonomy: coercion, discrimination and violence as it is experienced by many women and girls in our societies today. These, in themselves, should be sufficient to propel ourselves and our leaders to action. Yet, there is a failure to put in place the protections necessary to prevent perpetuation of structures influencing ill health. The freedom to decide, and safe spaces for women and girls are created not only by the people who surround them, but also by the political and economic structures that shape our societies. This implies that the pursuit of transformative change in our social environment needs to be accompanied by strong political action that promotes equality and respectful interpersonal relationships as well as one that does not tolerate violence in any form. In altering the structural determinants which place women and girls at a social disadvantage and constrain their autonomy, we can begin to advance our commitment to ensuring women’s health.

To find out more about the HEARD’s work on women’s health, please click here and here for Sexual and Reproduction Health and Rights.