Income gaps for women reduce health equity, why IWD is still so important

In 1911 the first International Women’s Day marches were held across Europe. Just a couple weeks later, on March 25th, the deadliest industrial disaster in the history of New York City happened: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. One hundred and forty six people died in this fire, 116 of them were women who jumped out windows and down elevator shafts, or were burned alive by a factory on fire that had inadequate fire escapes and whose foreman kept too many doors locked. Most of the employees of this factory were young immigrant women. The following year, International Women’s Day marches were held on March 8th and honoured these women, and the tradition has carried forward ever since.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day with a focus on equal access to education and training: pathways to decent work for women. This is an important focus in a time when income inequalities are becoming part of the discussion on health and equality, as we look at the job market here in Canada through a fresh lens of income disparity and colour lines.

From a population health perspective, labour mar­ket poverty and inequality interact with, and have an impact on, a number of other social determinants of health including incomes, housing, racism, immigra­tion, and social inclusion. The World Health Organiza­tion (WHO) Commission on the Social Determinants of Health stated:

Employment and working conditions have power­ful effects on health and health equity. When these are good they can provide financial security, social status, personal development, social relations and self-esteem and protection from physical and psychological hazards – each important for health. In addition to the direct health consequences of tackling work-related inequities the health equity impact will be even greater due to work’s potential role in reducing gender, ethnic, racial and other social inequities.

This same day in 1977 was a historic moment for women across the world and a step forward toward a long road to equality when the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on member nations to proclaim a day for women’s rights and international peace. This again was the day when women came out on the streets demanding better conditions at work, right to vote, to hold office and to be equal partners with men.

Although Canadian women have made great strides over the last century, we still lag behind in almost every aspect of life compared to men. Immigrant women in this country are still far behind in realizing their hopes for equal rights and privileges. Violence, discrimination, access to quality health care, and job market opportunities are only some of the issues newcomers’ are struggling with.

Despite the progress made by women in the industrialized world, for a large proportion of women across the developing world, the hopes of equality are a long way from being realized. Almost two out of three illiterate adults are women. Girls are still less likely to be in school than boys. Every 90 seconds of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy or due to childbirth-related complications despite us having the knowledge and resources to make birth safe.

Across the world women continue to earn less than men for the same work and continue to have unequal access to opportunities.

Take time today to remind yourself why women’s issues are important, why large strides still need to be made, even here in Canada, and why we should consider them all year round, not just on March 8th.

Further Wellesley Institute research on women and population health:

Work and Health: exploring the impact of  employment on health disparities

Homeless women, housing and social support

Older women: Abuse and neglect

My Baby and Me: Infant passport

Health equity and women’s health services