International Women’s Day took place this past Tuesday, March 8th. Adopted by the United Nations in 1977, its origins are rooted in the earlier twentieth-century social and political feminist movements that fought for women’s suffrage, labor rights, and the broad ideal of gender equality.
According to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we should all be feminists. In her TED talk and essay by the same name, she makes the case that feminism benefits everyone. The data on gender equality and mental health support her argument in spades.
1. Feminism. It is impossible to talk about feminism without spotlighting Gloria Steinem, who has devoted her life’s work to the late 20th and early 21st century’s women’s rights movement. Steinem’s definition of feminism is profound in its simplicity: feminism is the belief in the full humanity of all people. Her TED talk and multiple recorded interviews (on YouTube) call on all of us to recognize that feminism is open for everyone. We can all be feminists. It’s a way of challenging a division based on sex that should not exist. Full stop.
2. Patriarchy is linked to Poverty, Violence, and Education. In “The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide,” Valerie Hudson, Donna Lee Bowen, and Lynne Nielsen report on a study of 176 countries where they demonstrate that patriarchy (as measured by such things as unequal treatment of women in family law and property rights, early marriage for girls, bride price, son preference, and violence against women) strongly correlates with poverty. They describe countries with high scores as suffering from “patrilineal/fraternal syndrome.” These countries also tend to be economically poorer countries with a significantly higher risk for food insecurity, societal unrest and war, shorter life expectancy, and lower population health and education levels.
3. Poverty is linked to Mental Ill Health. Economic factors play a significant role in shaping our social environments, and we know that social factors significantly impact our mental health. In terms of poverty, consider a study from Scotland which found that 4-year-old children from the most economically disadvantaged parts of Glasgow are almost twice as like as children from the most economically advantaged sectors to be rated by their teachers as having “abnormal” social, behavioral, and emotional issues (7.3% vs. 4.1%). By age 7, the economically driven gap in mental health grows to 14.7% versus 3.6%. The impact of poverty on adult mental health is similarly well-documented. Around the globe, in high and low-income countries, studies consistently show that poverty significantly elevates adults’ risk of experiencing common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, with women disproportionately impacted. Conversely, we have robust data to support the positive impact of anti-poverty programs, including cash transfer strategies, on mental well-being. We also have strong data indicating that access to appropriate mental health services reduces mental-ill health and increases the likelihood of gainful employment.
4. Violence is linked to Mental Ill Health. Patriarchal social systems are associated with higher rates of all forms of violence – from war to intimate partner violence (IPV). The data are incontrovertible, and the impact is detrimental to everyone. The violence of war is associated with extraordinarily elevated risk for mental illness, including major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and a wide range of substance use disorders. The impact is profound for combat veterans as well as civilian populations. On an individual level, Intimate partner violence leads to heightened rates of these same mental health and substance use disorders, with approximately one in four survivors of IPV reporting new onset of mental health symptoms.
5. Reduced Access to Education is linked to Mental Ill Health. Patriarchy is associated with reduced educational opportunities for girls. Almost two-thirds of the world’s 775 million illiterate adults are women, according to Azza Karam’s United Nations report, Education at the Pathway towards Gender Equality. Reduced access to education for half the population is associated with all kinds of societal woes, including mental ill health. Conversely, studies from around the world show that increased access to education, particularly for girls, is associated with enhanced population health, including mental health. The impacts carry forward to the next generation. Parental mental health problems are associated with adverse developmental outcomes for children, but when parental mental health needs are effectively addressed, particularly for mothers, the next generation benefits as well.
When my grandmothers were born, women did not have the right to vote in their home countries of Ireland and Italy. When my mother was born, women were expected to resign from their jobs when they married or became pregnant. When I was born, women were not admitted to the university that was to become my alma mater. International Women’s Day reminds us to reflect on the extraordinary milestones already achieved along this journey to gender equality. It also reminds us that we have a long stretch to go in realizing gender equality worldwide. When we are all feminists, we will all benefit.