The structural inequities that circumscribe women’s lives have powerful effects on health. Many of the causes of poor health in women are socially determined: lower social status, fewer economic and educational opportunities, limited access to resources, and significant power differentials are strongly correlated with health challenges. Inequalities have been growing exponentially over the past three decades despite major interventions by international organizations to improve the quality of life for the world’s poorest citizens.
The Atlas of Women in the World opens with a stark observation: “Many women around the world have experienced an absolute decline in the quality of their life over the past decade. Improvements in one place are not necessarily transferable to other places; we remain a world divided” (Seager 2009, 9). The persistence of extreme poverty accompanied by growing inequalities within and across nations and regions of the world in the twenty-first century is something of a puzzle—precisely because near universal consensus has been forged about the appropriate means to improve the quality of life though economic expansion and poverty reduction.
In September 2000, leaders of all the nations of the world convened at the United Nations to launch a new global partnership to reduce extreme poverty by 2015. They committed their nations to the achievement of eight Millennium Development Goals and created time tables for their achievement. Like many earlier efforts, the Millennium Development Goals call for a global partnership to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat malaria and other diseases (including HIV/AIDS), and ensure environmental sustainability. Yet in the midst of these impressive commitments, the health of the world population remains characterized by inequities within and across countries.