The Chronicle Library Shelf: Women's Global Health and Human Rights

Women's Global Health and Human Rights

Edited by Padmini Murthy and Clyde Lanford Smith
Jones and Bartlett Publishers, Massachusetts, 2010
pp. 556, $72.95

Reviewed by Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharya Women's Global Health and Human Rights, Murthy et al. fills a deep void in scholarship and provides practical insight on the challenges facing women's health advocates worldwide. Readers will be taken by the work's encyclopedic breadth and conceptual depth. A diverse array of reputable and emerging scholars and practitioners contributed to the work, including the late women's health advocate and former Dean of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, Dr Allan Rosenfield, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, and senior UN staff members. Divided into seven sections and 42 chapters, major themes include the impact of globalization, economics and development, chronic diseases, human rights, and cultural practices. Together, the work is at once inspiring and sobering -- informative in describing current trends and identifying avenues to remedy existent problems, yet daunting in its appraisal of pervasive social impediments that cause innumerous harms and preclude women from realizing their human right to health. Women's health advocates will find in its pages a clarion call to redouble their efforts.

Traditional treatment of women's global health issues is often subsumed in discussions about maternal mortality and violence against women. This work, however, explores a myriad of themes and topics that affect women's health generally and particular issues unique to women across their lifespan. Moreover, the issues are relevant to both developed and developing countries. Infectious diseases, chronic illnesses, and microbial, behavioural, and ecological determinants of health are all addressed from a gender-based perspective.

The compilation also transcends traditional dichotomies of medicine and public health by promoting preventive and treatment modalities to secure women's health. For example, Drs Brinton, Hopkins, and Sankaran's exploration of risk factors and risk reduction of cardiovascular diseases highlights their role as the leading cause of deaths worldwide (over 30% of all mortalities, according to the World Health Organization).

Exploring the synergy of health and human rights is also timely given the rise of religious fundamentalism and pervasive trends in violence and oppressive social practices. Practitioners unfamiliar with rights-based approaches to health will find Dempsey and Meier's chapter particularly helpful in elucidating the role -- and possibilities -- of international law in contemporary reproductive rights discourse.

Despite its extensive array of topics, some practical limitations are inevitable. The assessment of cultural practices may seem inadequate for anthropologists, but an overview of their effects, along with concrete examples, are sufficient for practitioners who must frequently interact with affected populations and policymakers. Compelling examples include an assessment of breastfeeding, development, water and sanitation, female genital mutilation, and issues in occupational health.

The exploration of adolescent health issues is also a welcome feature of this compendium. Topics include violence against children, children in war and complex emergencies, and the impact of chronic kidney disease on the girl-child. Examining issues unique to adolescent populations reiterates both the lifespan approach to women's health and human rights and how such issues are relevant in emergencies and non-emergencies, with respect to chronic and acute health threats alike. Simply put, gender matters in constructing models of adolescent health.

Murthy's compilation is an indispensable reference for educators, activists, and policymakers. Scholars will find its discussion of major topics a convenient snapshot of pressing issues. Activists may use each chapter as a tool to contextualize existent health problems, and facilitate advocacy at the individual and population levels. Policymakers would recognize that gender and human rights are determinants of health with profound social implications. The work is a timely and provocative addition that will further the ongoing discourse on health and human rights by focusing on arguably the world's most vulnerable population: women.

Dhrubajyoti Bhattacharya, JD, MPH is Assistant Professor of Health Law and Policy at Southern Illinois University's School of Medicine and an Assistant Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the School of Law.