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The Impact Of Poverty On Women’s Health

Poverty and healthcare go hand in hand. Poverty increases the risk of diseases and puts poor households at a disadvantage of climbing the economic ladder. 

While it is clear that both men and women suffer in poverty, women tend to be on the losing end. 

Source: Code Blue

The United Nations says that women have fewer resources to cope if they fall sick. Women are also likely to be the last to eat, the ones least likely to access healthcare, and routinely trapped in time-consuming, unpaid domestic tasks[1]. – UN Women

Wealth Buys Health 

It is not surprising that poor people suffer from more health problems and receive a lower quality of health care than their rich counterparts.

International healthcare trends show women living in poverty are much more vulnerable to minor nutritional problems as well as severe diseases and health risks related to child bearing[2].

In households where the female is the main breadwinner for the family, they are subject to lower wages, fewer educational opportunities, substandard health care, and a lack of employee protections and benefits such as paid maternity leave and childcare. This alone makes it fundamentally difficult to break out of poverty. 

Source: Malaysiakini

These health trends among women are reflected in Malaysia’s population. Women in low-income families have to choose between earning a salary and taking care of their family. For example, young women who just got married and find themselves pregnant quickly have a hard time securing or keeping a job. 

Source: Unsplash

Day jobs do not provide paid maternity leave and for the woman to return to work, she would require help to care for her baby. Daycare services are almost non-existent for day job workers and it may be too expensive for those who are just starting out their career[3].

Poor Diet Leads To Poor Health 

It is found that when a household suffers financially and there are cutbacks in terms of food quantity, the food intake for women tends to decrease first. This is generally due to the nature of women ensuring others are prioritised when eating. 

Source: Unsplash

Traditionally speaking, women are in charge of the family’s grocery list. As a result, the food choices that women make for their families have a direct impact on theirs and their family’s health. 

Malaysia’s B40 community spends a little over 24% of their monthly income on food, that’s approximately RM600 per household. It works out to RM20 per day, per household[4]

Source: Borneo Post

Families with a limited budget are more likely to opt for food choices that are cheaper, rather than the healthier. Oftentimes, these food choices are in the form of foods with high in calorie and high fat count and less on other nutritional benefits resulting in nutritional deficiencies. 

A Weighty Problem 

Food choices based on budget can look something like this – choosing rice over pasta, eggs over meat, indulging in canned and processed foods and instant noodles and little or no fruits. These choices are made because it is cheaper, items have a longer shelf life and higher calorie count, prolonging the feeling of fullness.

Source: World of Buzz

However, these habits have their downfalls in the long run. The majority of processed food products like canned food and instant noodles have a high in sodium, salt content and low levels of nutrients, proteins, and fibres. Over time, excessive intake of these kinds of foods will take a toll on the body.  

The National Health and Morbidity (NHMS) 2019 report showed that Malaysian women are much more likely to have higher cholesterol levels and more likely to be overweight or obese compared to their male counterparts[5].

Source: National Institutes of Health

Over time, if not controlled, these health issues can have long term health consequences that require high-cost medical treatments. These habits seem consistent throughout the country.

Women in lower-income households have a higher prevalence of being overweight or obese[6].

Lack Begets Lack 

3 out of 10 Malaysian women are anaemic[5]

Unhealthy diets that are high in carbohydrates and fat but lacking in nutrition results in micronutrient deficiencies specifically in iodine, iron, vitamin A and Zinc. In most cases, these women are anaemic as a result of iron deficiency which brings serious health consequences and could even lead to heart failure. 

Source: VOA News

A female that is anaemic has an increased risk of miscarriage and premature delivery[2]. Due to the lack of oxygen in the mother’s body, the baby’s birth weight may be affected and ultimately lead to stunted growth in the new-born. This trend is prevalent among the lower-income groups.

Source: Unsplash

According to a Unicef report on urban poor families, 1 in 5 children in Malaysia suffer from stunting[7]. Those living in B40 households are twice as likely to have a child with stunted growth[8].

Women And Mental Health 

It is internationally recognised that women are more prone to mental disorders, accidents, STDs, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, smoking, substance abuse, prescription drugs, and physical inactivity. Women tend to hold themselves at a lower self-image with questions of “never being good enough”[9].

It is true that in Malaysia, the number of committed suicides were more frequent in men than women, however, suicidal attempts and instances of self-harm are higher among the women[9]. It is simply the fact the numbers do not show that many women failed their suicidal attempts.

Source: National Institutes of Health

About half a million Malaysians have been diagnosed with depression, among other mental disorders. Of that number, women in rural areas and those from low-income groups are at higher risk of mental illness[5].

These cases included symptoms of loss of interest and enjoyment, reduced concentration, disturbed sleep, and appetite, as well as ideas of self – harm[5].

Women May Live Longer, But They May Also Suffer More 

Despite all the health risks stacked against women, surprisingly, they have a lower mortality rate compared to men at any age group.

A female baby born in 2020, can expect to live to the age of 77.6 years old whereas a make newborn born in the same year is only expected to live till 72.6 years old[10]

Source: Department of Statistics Malaysia

Globally, women are ultimately more vulnerable to health risks. They face a different set of potential diseases, illnesses, and injuries related to their reproductive systems. They are subject to heart problems because of their environmental surroundings, and nutritional habits. They are also unreported victims of mental disorders. 

However, alongside this vulnerability, women are gifted with longevity. Women from low-income families may not be able to take advantage of this gift due to life circumstances.

Taking on the responsibilities of being a good daughter, wife, mother and breadwinner is no walk in the park, especially when you are trapped in poverty.  

Explore Our Sources:

  1. UN Women. (2020). Women And Poverty. Link.
  2. Ngoma, C., Mayimbo, S. (2010). The Negative Impact of Poverty on the Health of Women and Children. Annals of Medical & Health Sciences Research. Link.
  3. Khazanah Research Institute. (2019). Time To Care: Gender Inequality, Unpaid Care Work and Time Use Survey. Link.
  4. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2020). Household Expenditure Survey Report 2019. Link.
  5. National Institute of Health. (2019). National Health and Morbidity Survey 2019: Non-communicable diseases, healthcare demand, and health literacy. Ministry of Health Malaysia. Link.
  6. Khazanah Research Institute. (2020). Social Inequalities and Health in Malaysia. The State of Households 2020: Part III. Link.
  7. UNICEF Malaysia. (2018). Children Without. A study of urban child poverty and deprivation in low-cost flats in Kuala Lumpur. Link.
  8. Kok, D. (May 2019). Stunting In Malaysia: Cost, Causes and Courses for Action. Jeffrey Cheah Institute of Southeast Asia (JCI). Link.
  9. Armitage, C.J. et al. (2015). Completed Suicides and Self-Harm in Malaysia: A Systematic Review. Link.
  10. Department of Statistics Malaysia. (2020). Abridged Life Tables, Malaysia, 2018-2020. Link.

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