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This article is part of the supplement: Women's Health Surveillance Report

Open Access Open Badges Report

The Social Context of Women's Health

Vivienne Walters

Author Affiliations

National Centre for Public Policy, University of Wales Swansea, Swansea, UK

BMC Women's Health 2004, 4(Suppl 1):S2  doi:10.1186/1472-6874-4-S1-S2

Published: 25 August 2004


Health Issue

The discussion of health emphasizes the importance of analyses of social determinants of health. Social determinants permit the targeting of policies towards the social factors that impair or improve health. Two broad questions are considered: (i) what do we know about the social determinants of women's health? (ii) are there gender-related differences in health problems, and how we might explain them?

Key Findings

While 'sex' may be used to denote the biological difference between women and men, it is an imperfect measure of 'gender'. It is argued that a single measure cannot hope to capture the complexity of gender nor the ways in which gender relations change over time and give rise to or exacerbate health problems. The literature on the social determinants of health shows the importance of placing a primary emphasis on addressing the social and economic sources of ill health at national, provincial and community levels.

Data Gaps and Recommendations

Recent studies of gender differences in health point to a lack of data and to the importance of understanding changing gender relations; differences in power and access to resources between women and men, and changing expectations of appropriate gender roles and behaviours. Poverty, social exclusion, unemployment, poor working conditions and unequal gender relations have a profound influence on patterns of health and illness. We suggest some material markers of change that might be used in health surveillance. With a more complete understanding of gender's role in shaping daily lives, these markers could be refined and expanded.