Do gender equality policies contribute to women’s health?

Borrell C, Palència L, Muntaner C, Urquia M, Malmusi D, O’Campo P. Influence of Macrosocial Policies on Women’s Health and Gender Inequalities in Health. Epidemiologic Reviews. 2014; 36(1):31-48. Contact: Patricia O’Campo (O’CampoP@smh.ca)

Issue: Women suffer more than men from non-fatal, physical and mental health problems, and are generally expected to live fewer years in good health. There are few epidemiological studies, however, that look at the potential of government policies to improve women’s health and wellbeing.

What we did: We analyzed peer-reviewed articles that compared gender equality policies across two or more jurisdictions. Gender equality policies can include components like flexible work time, parental leave, benefits for work inside the home, equal pay initiatives and programs to increase women’s representation in political office. We looked at articles published in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian between 1970 and 2012.

What we found: In general, social and labour policies explicitly intended to reduce or mitigate unequal power relations between women and men – as compared to policies aimed at the entire population – are associated with improved health outcomes for women. In addition:

– ‘Dual-earner’ policy models designed to facilitate women’s participation in the work force and foster equitable relationships around unpaid work in the home seem to support better health.

– Longer maternity leaves are generally associated with reductions in depression and longer duration of breastfeeding.

– US studies demonstrate a link between reproductive rights and mental health.

– Gender equality polices, depending on how they are designed, could affect different populations differently. One US study found that the positive effects of maternity leave were most pronounced overall for women who were white, married and returning to full-time work.

Implications: In Canada, opportunities to enhance gender equality policies and improve women’s health include ensuring that all families have access to high quality, affordable child care and that all parents have access to paid parental leave of sufficient length. In addition, policy-makers should consider how gender equality policies affect different populations, and design and implement policies that yield maximum benefit for all women.

Read more about this study in Medical Xpress.

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