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Int J Health Serv. 1996;26(1):47-65.

The politics of women's health: setting a global agenda.

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  • 1Department of Health and Social Care, School of Policy Studies, University of Bristol, England.


The last decade has been marked by a rapid growth in the women's health movement around the world. There has been a marked shift in activities away from the developed countries, as campaigns increase in intensity in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The practice of women's health politics has also become increasingly international with sustained and effective collaboration across the north-south divide. Both the goals of these campaigns and their methods vary with the circumstances of the women involved. But despite this diversity, common themes can be identified: reproductive self-determination; affordable, effective, and humane medical care; satisfaction of basic needs; a safe workplace; and freedom from violence.


Women's health advocacy efforts have shifted from developed countries to developing countries and have become increasingly international in focus as feminists seek to insure reproductive self-determination, appropriate health care, satisfaction of basic human needs, workplace safety, and physical security for women. In the area of achieving reproductive rights and correcting reproductive wrongs, groups campaign for different aspects of reproductive rights in different areas (for access to contraception or for freedom from coercion) and use significantly different strategies to achieve their goals. This "unity in diversity" is categorized by 1) a demand for greater sexual autonomy; 2) calls for high quality, safe reproductive health care; 3) efforts to achieve access to safe abortion; and 4) attempts to reduce maternal mortality and increase access to appropriate maternal care. Consideration of how women's groups are challenging the "professional domination" of the medical profession reveals that 1) generalized "self-help" efforts have evolved into consciousness-raising efforts and specialized health groups, 2) feminists have published widely on women's health issues, 3) women's health centers provide the only access to health care in many settings, 4) women have lobbied for efforts to reduce the incidence of breast cancer, and 5) guarantees of informed consent have been achieved in some countries. Examination of attempts to satisfy basic needs while achieving sustainable development presents strategies women have used to oppose deforestation, conserve water, improve child health, and improve housing. Discussion of women's involvement in occupational health and safety campaigns points to the fact that most activities are small-scale, local campaigns but also involve larger issues which women identify themselves, including sexual harassment. Finally, it is noted that male violence remains a major threat to women's health. Efforts to counteract violence include providing services to survivors of abuse and the launching of public information campaigns. Thus, women are following many paths in their efforts to promote and protect women's right to health.

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