June 16, 2024

Investing in women’s health is essential in the era of polycrises

  1. Johanna Riha, research fellow,
  2. Zaida Orth, postdoctoral researcher,
  3. Rajat Khosla, director

  1. United Nations University International Institute for Global Health, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In a time of overlapping crises that demand urgent attention, prioritising women’s health will benefit everyone

The world is in a state of “polycrises” where multiple economic, environmental, social, and geopolitical shocks have converged and are driving and deepening existing gender inequalities and health inequities.1 These polycrises are additionally contributing to backsliding on human rights and growing anti-gender movements, culminating in devastating effects on women’s and girls’ health worldwide.2 Steps to prioritise women’s health must be taken to prevent it being neglected among competing priorities.

Globally, the cost-of-living crisis and austerity measures will push over 340 million of the most vulnerable women into poverty by 2030, forcing many to choose between basic human rights like food or medical treatment.3 This exacerbates existing gendered gaps in access to healthcare and adversely affects women’s and girl’s ability to stay healthy. For example, it is currently estimated that 500 million women worldwide lack access to menstrual products and hygiene facilities,4 with this trend worsening because of ongoing polycrises.5 Denial of this basic health right forces many, in high and low income countries alike, to avoid work and school, adversely affecting their income and education.

Conflict, climate displacement, and covid-19 are driving worrying increases in gender based violence, child marriage, and female genital mutilation.6 Pooled survey data from 13 countries with over 16 000 respondents shows that almost half of women report that they or a woman they know has experienced a form of violence since the pandemic.7 Additionally, the pandemic fuelled a rise in the unpaid care and domestic work that disproportionately falls on women and girls.8 Concurrent crises, such as climate change and declining health systems, directly and indirectly affect women’s physical and mental health as they make up 67% of health and care workers9 and 40% of the total agricultural workforce worldwide.10

These polycrises will likely have detrimental effects on the health of future generations. In some cases, intergenerational health effects are well understood (such as the associations between maternal education and infant health),11 while for others evidence is only beginning to emerge. Plastic pollution, for example, which accounts for 85% of all marine litter, has disastrous consequences on livelihoods, food security, and health. Microplastics are particularly harmful to the health of women and girls, impacting gestational weight and genital structures in fetuses.1213

What can be done to prioritise women’s health in the era of polycrises?

On International Women’s Day, as we grapple with how to manage and build resilience in the current climate, the call for continued and increased investment for gender equality and health is imperative. It makes economic, social, political, climate, and public health sense to invest now for a more sustainable and healthier future. A recent report by the World Economic Forum shows how narrowing of the existing gap in women’s health would avoid 24 million life years lost because of disability, add over $1tn to the global economy, and boost economic productivity by up to $400bn.14 But actionable steps must be taken to prioritise women’s health, especially given the competing priorities.

We believe that investing in the following three areas is critical. Firstly, investment in feminist leadership is needed. Although women contribute an estimated $3tn annually to global health, half in the form of unpaid work, and are the backbone of health service delivery, women hold only 25% of health leadership roles.15 Having representative leadership is critical to ensure prioritisation of actions that support and empower women in times of polycrises. This leadership must move beyond tokenism and have decision making powers. With rapidly shrinking civic spaces and growing, well coordinated anti-gender movements, the need for feminist leadership with representation from indigenous women, LGBTIQ+ people, people with disabilities, and those living in rural, remote, and disaster prone areas is even more acute.

Secondly, support for feminist civil society organisations is needed. Feminist civil society groups have a long history of building knowledge and evidence, advocating for advancements in women’s health, and holding governments and other actors to account.1617 Feminist movements have been most effective when they form broad coalitions and alliances with other social movements, including trade unions, environmental groups, and LGBTIQ+ rights groups.16 Increasing investment in feminist civil society organisations, especially to build alliances and bridges between different groups, will help promote women’s health in the face of growing backlash and concurrent crises.

Thirdly, technical capacity to advance sex and gender integration in policies and programmes must increase. Ensuring sex and gender based inequities in health are adequately tackled and not further reinforced—including prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery plans—requires specific technical expertise. Investing in strengthening this technical capacity, which includes staff with specialised skillsets, contextualised knowledge, and understanding of how intersecting axes of discrimination harm women’s health, can help mitigate inequities and improve health.18

For far too long, women’s health has been deprioritised. Now more than ever, investing in women’s health presents an opportunity for a big win for everyone.


  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Provenance: not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.

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