Womens health is better when women have more control in their society – News24

A unique comparison

That study, published inProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was conducted in two farming communities in southwestern China. Both communities, part of the Mosuo ethnic minority, share a common language, religion and rites of passage. They differ, however, in one key way that made this unique study possible: kinship.

Some Mosuo pass land and other resources from mothers to daughters. Anthropologists call this system matriliny. The role of men in Mosuo families is de-emphasized, although some take active roles as fathers and husbands. About 30 percent are in walking marriages: men and women are together at night, but do not formally marry. Instead, the men remain part of their mothers or sisters household. The men in matrilineal communities often provide financial support to women, and the walking marriages, though easy to dissolve, are often monogamous.

Compare this with a smaller, less well-known population of patrilineal Mosuo, who typically marry monogamously and pass inheritances from fathers to sons. They are more similar to many Euro-American families, where gender norms typically empower men.

With that as background, we began to wonder if the Mosuo would show evidence of improved health for women in matrilineal communities, where women have greater autonomy and access to resources. This has proved very difficult to test, because communities differing in kinship and degree of womens autonomy also differ in other ways.

Our team traveled to hundreds of households in both the patrilineal and matrilineal communities of Mosuo. We asked participants about their social, economic and household circumstances. We measured their blood pressure and collected small specimens of blood for other health assessments. From that, we could compare matrilineal and patrilineal communities, and found this: Gender disparities in health were completely reversed in matrilineal communities.

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Briefly, womens health was poorer than mens in patrilineal settings. But it was better than mens in the matrilineal communities. There, womens rates of chronic inflammation were roughly half of mens, with rates of hypertension roughly 12 percent lower.

Both chronic inflammation and hypertension are early indicators of long-term chronic disease. Both put people at higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative disorders and death. The poorer health that women experienced in the patrilineal Mosuo communities likely occurred due to differences in daily experiences, including stress that accumulated both in the short and long term.

Our findings challenge simplistic notions that biology is the only or primary determinant of gendered health differences. This is not a new revelation, but the study suggests an even stronger role for culture than previously evidenced.

This does not mean biology plays no role in the health differences between men and women. Virtually all diseases are biological at the cellular level. But emphasizing only biological differences assumes everything else between men and women is equal. This is rarely, if ever, the case.

Child care and household duties are easier when women have help and autonomy. Mosuo women in both matrilineal and patrilineal communities take on substantial responsibility for both. But those in matrilineal communities do so with greater autonomy and more support from relatives and childhood friends. Those in patrilineal communities are more isolated from their sisters and often take on household chores with less help.

These findings are relevant to womens health, not just in Mosuo communities, but elsewhere. Everyones health is affected by their autonomy and access to support, even nonhumans. Now, with a better understanding of how kinship and gender norms can impact womens health, we can work to lessen health disparities and decrease the ever-growing burden of chronic disease.

This article is republished fromThe Conversationunder a Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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