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Society, Politics & Law

Gender and Disease

Updated Wednesday, 14th July 2004

Course extract from Preparing For Development - Gender and Disease

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A boy earning his living from a dump on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC Life expectancy, measured in years, is the average length of life in a country or community. It is often used as a measure of disease because the lower the life expectancy, the greater is the incidence of disease. Women usually have a greater life expectancy than men, often by several years. The difference in years between female and male life expectancy is called the 'female advantage' and this is compiled in next table for the same countries as in one before (except for Cuba). In Mozambique for example, women are expected to live longer than men by 3 years on average.

Region Country
Female life expectancy advantage (years)
Africa Mozambique
  Sierra Leone
America Peru
Asia Pakistan
Sri Lanka
Europe Poland

Source: World Bank, 2000.

Activity Five From the information shown in this table, do you think the female advantage is greater or less for countries in the South than for the developed, Northern countries?

Because, throughout the world, the life expectancy for women is greater than that for men, some people have suggested that women have a 'biological' advantage in terms of resistance to disease. The difference is smaller, however, in the South. This suggests that women may be disadvantaged in some way by the kinds of life they lead in the South.

Read the following extracts from Womankind Worldwide:
…One study in Bangladesh showed that boys up to the age of five received 16% more energy-providing food than girls. In the 5-14 age range, it was 11% more. Girls are also discriminated against in the provision of healthcare.
Although girls often suffer more illness, boys are more frequently taken for treatment. A survey of six rural communities in India found 730 girls and 513 boys to be ill. But 50% of the boys saw a doctor compared with only 25% of the girls. As adults, females in many societies in the developing world continue to expect and receive less to eat than males… In many countries, customs dictate that men are served first; women and children eat whatever is left.
Women in one village in the Punjab, one study found … were receiving a third fewer calories in their food compared with men of the same height and weight. Yet their working day was considerably longer…
We now know that malnutrition is one of the main causes of anaemia, which affects about half the women in the developing world, and as many as two-thirds of those who are pregnant. Nutritional anaemia not only causes fatigue, but leads to problems with childbirth and lowers resistance to diseases…
The amount and kind of work women undertake also takes its toll on health. A 16-hour day is not unusual in rural areas, particularly at busy times of the year. Most of this time is spent in hard physical labour.
Added to this, much of what women do is not considered to be work…
This lack of recognition, together with the drudgery of the work, produces low levels of satisfaction and high levels of stress, two ingredients which are increasingly recognized as being threatening to health.
Figures from the World Health Organization reveal that over half a million women each year die from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; and 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries.
Many more women suffer side effects which jeopardize their health for the rest of their lives.
In all societies there are taboos surrounding bodily functions and sexuality. This restricts not only behaviour but also the availability of information … 'Girls reach marriage without knowing anything. That's why they get pregnant immediately and scarcely is the child a year old and they have another.'
(Womankind Worldwide (b), pp.1-3,7)

Activity Six

From the preceding extracts from Womankind Worldwide, list four major, general causes of disease, disability and death among women. Add brief notes about why, according to the extracts, women are more vulnerable to these causes than men.

When you've finished, compare your answers with mine, which you'll find on the next page.


Access to healthcare: An Indian hospital Activity Six: A Suggested Answer

You were asked:

From the preceding extracts from Womankind Worldwide, list four major, general causes of disease, disability and death among women. Add brief notes about why, according to the extracts, women are more vulnerable to these causes than men.

My answers to this are as follows:
One cause is malnutrition. The extracts describe the ways in which women get less food than men.
A second cause is poor access to medical facilities. The extracts tell us, for example, that although girls often suffer more illness, boys are more frequently taken for treatment. Figures from a study of rural communities in India are quoted to support this statement.
A third cause is work. The extracts stress the long hours that women work and the hard, physical nature of it. A fourth cause is early and frequent pregnancies. It is suggested that poor information lies at the heart of this problem which is made worse by 'taboos'.

Activity Seven

Do you think any of the four major causes identified apply to sections of the society in which you live? If so, which sections? What evidence do you have to support your view?

Again, your answer to this will depend a great deal on which country you live in.

Study skills review: summarizing

In Activity Six, you effectively summarized in your own words the main points in the article. This is an important skill where you extract the information contained in an article into a form that is suitable for your own purposes.

Note that in doing this you start to organize the article under key concepts (in this case malnutrition, etc.)
You are beginning the important job of creating for yourself a model of what is happening, a model that can act as a powerful tool of analysis. You have already been asked to apply this model in a straightforward way in Activity Seven

Now, try the next section of the course - looking at Disease and Education.

About this sample

This course sample is adapted from Preparing For Development, part of the U213: International Development: Challenges for a world in transition and TU871: Development: Context and practice courses.





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