On the occasion of the International Day of Action for Women’s Health (1), European public health, health promotion and disease prevention, health professionals and women issues non-governmental organisations are calling for the newly elected European Parliament (EP), its Committees and political parties to stand strong, protect and promote women’s health, gender equality and social justice for all. We believe that progress on women and girls’ health and commitment to gender equality form the underlying conditions for good public health outcomes in Europe and beyond.

The advancement of women’s health and rights goes well beyond reproductive and sexual health (SRH). Therefore, they should not only be a priority of the EP Committee on Gender Equality but must be seen as a shared political responsibility of other EP Committees that are equally crucial for women’s health and well-being, such as the Committees for Public Health and Environment; the Committee of Employment and Social Affairs; and the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Home, among others. Likewise, the new European Commission with its new President must ensure women’s health and gender equality top their political agenda.

In the Europe of today, women are disproportionately more affected by the economic crisis and austerity measures, often leading to crippling poverty. Many women are victims of gender-based violence and daily discrimination in different areas affecting their health. Across the EU, millions of women do not have access to SRH including adequate and affordable antenatal care. Prevention is widely unavailable or too costly. Those on lower incomes, such as the Roma and other marginalised groups, bear the brunt of poor health and the social consequences of this. Socio-economic, educational, cultural and ethnicity differences also impact on patterns of behaviour and access to resources.

It is well established that the incidence and prevalence of certain diseases are higher among women. For example, osteoporosis, auto-immune diseases and eating disorders are more frequent among the female population than the male’s. Other diseases and disabilities affect men and women differently. Cardiovascular disease (CVD) is a major killer in older women. Obesity, smoking and sedentary lifestyles put women at high risk of developing type-2 diabetes, the risk of which is also increasing due to women’s longer life-expectancy (2). Women in Europe are drinking more alcohol today, are becoming more frequent binge drinkers, and alcohol-related health issues start sooner in women than men (3). It should be noted, however, that although women live longer, they usually spend those ‘gained’ years with some form of disability and lower quality of life. Women outlive men by an average of 6 years, however the difference in healthy life expectancy is only 18 months. Research, medical practice and healthcare systems must better respond to gender differences and address women’s health across their life course, as recommended by the World Health Organization (4). It is also important to link efforts to improve reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health – “the continuum of care”.

Changing the socio-economic conditions for women would help tackle poverty, social exclusion, and health inequalities, increase gender equality and social justice for all, including young people and older adults, the LGBT community, people living with HIV/AIDS, minority and migrant groups. Strong leadership is needed that is committed to a holistic, inclusive, and human rights-based approach to women and girls’ health in Europe and beyond; an approach which recognises diverse issues, such as the feminisation of poverty and violence, governments’ accountability in prioritising health markets and health sector reform. Such an approach also needs to understand how international trade agreements can affect a women’s access to health and other resources.

"Inequalities experienced in earlier life in access to education, employment and healthcare, as well as those based on gender and cultural background, can have a critical bearing on the health status of people throughout their lives. The combination of poverty with other vulnerabilities, such as childhood or old age, disability or minority background further increases health risks and ill health itself can lead to poverty and/or social exclusion.” European Parliament 2011 Report on Reducing Health Inequalities in the EU Committee on the Environment, Public Health, and Food Safety (5).

  • Notes to the editor

(1) Since its inaugural launch in 1987,May 28th has been recognised as the International Day of Action for Women’s Health by several governments, various international agencies and multiple civil society organizations around the world.

(2) NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, 2010

(3) Alcohol and women in the EU by European Institute of Women’s health

(4) WHO Bulletin, Volume 91, Number 9, September 2013, 621-715. At the crossroads: transforming health systems to address women’s health across the life course.

(5) European Parliament report on Reducing Health Inequalities in the EU. (2010/2089(INI)

  • Contact information

Javier Delgado Rivera, EPHA Communications Coordinator at j.delgado-rivera@epha.org or 32 (0) 2 233 38 876

[Joint press statement] Newly elected European Parliament to stand strong and ambitious on women’s health and rights (pdf)

Last modified on June 1 2014.