To optimise women's control over pregnancy, it is essential that culturally appropriate contraceptive advice and means are widely, easily, and affordably available to anyone that is sexually active, including adolescents. In many parts of the world access to contraception and family planning services is very difficult or non existent and even in developed counties cultural and religious traditions can create barriers to access. Reported usage of adequate contraception by women has risen only slightly between 1990 and 2014, with considerable regional variability. Although global usage is around 55%, it may be as low as 25% in Africa. Worldwide 222 million women have no or limited access to contraception. Some caution is needed in interpreting available data, since contraceptive prevalence is often defined as "the percentage of women currently using any method of contraception among all women of reproductive age (i.e., those aged 15 to 49 years, unless otherwise stated) who are married or in a union. The “in-union” group includes women living with their partner in the same household and who are not married according to the marriage laws or customs of a country." This definition is more suited to the more restrictive concept of family planning, but omits the contraceptive needs of all other women and girls who are or are likely to be sexually active, are at risk of pregnancy and are not married or "in-union".
The extent to which interventions target women more generally, as opposed to just mothers, is not well documented. It requires reflecting on “Who is the woman in women's nutrition?” to identify which women are actually targeted in nutrition interventions, which are not, how they are reached, and gaps in policies and interventions to reach women who are missed. To address this, in this comprehensive narrative review, we 1) summarize existing knowledge about interventions targeting women's health and nutrition in low- and middle-income countries, 2) identify gaps in current delivery platforms that are intended to reach women and address their health and nutrition, and 3) determine strategies to reshape policies and programs to reach all women, at all stages of their lives, with a particular focus on women in low- and middle-income countries.
In 2013 about 289,000 women (800 per day) in the world died due to pregnancy-related causes, with large differences between developed and developing countries. Maternal mortality in western nations had been steadily falling, and forms the subject of annual reports and reviews. Yet, between 1987 and 2011, maternal mortality in the United States rose from 7.2 to 17.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, this is reflected in the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR). By contrast rates as high as 1,000 per birth are reported in the rest of the world, with the highest rates in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which account for 86% of such deaths. These deaths are rarely investigated, yet the World Health Organization considers that 99% of these deaths, the majority of which occur within 24 hours of childbirth, are preventable if the appropriate infrastructure, training, and facilities were in place. In these resource-poor countries, maternal health is further eroded by poverty and adverse economic factors which impact the roads, health care facilities, equipment and supplies in addition to limited skilled personnel. Other problems include cultural attitudes towards sexuality, contraception, child marriage, home birth and the ability to recognise medical emergencies. The direct causes of these maternal deaths are hemorrhage, eclampsia, obstructed labor, sepsis and unskilled abortion. In addition malaria and AIDS complicate pregnancy. In the period 2003–2009 hemorrhage was the leading cause of death, accounting for 27% of deaths in developing countries and 16% in developed countries.
Equally challenging for women are the physiological and emotional changes associated with the cessation of menses (menopause or climacteric). While typically occurring gradually towards the end of the fifth decade in life marked by irregular bleeding the cessation of ovulation and menstruation is accompanied by marked changes in hormonal activity, both by the ovary itself (oestrogen and progesterone) and the pituitary gland (follicle stimulating hormone or FSH and luteinizing hormone or LH). These hormonal changes may be associated with both systemic sensations such as hot flashes and local changes to the reproductive tract such as reduced vaginal secretions and lubrication. While menopause may bring relief from symptoms of menstruation and fear of pregnancy it may also be accompanied by emotional and psychological changes associated with the symbolism of the loss of fertility and a reminder of aging and possible loss of desirability. While menopause generally occurs naturally as a physiological process it may occur earlier (premature menopause) as a result of disease or from medical or surgical intervention. When menopause occurs prematurely the adverse consequences may be more severe.
Nutrition-sensitive approaches are difficult to link to women's nutritional status (5, 102). This is due to limited measurement of benefits to program beneficiaries, families, households, and communities, limited timeframes to evaluate long-term impact, logistical and political realities that make implementation difficult, and different priorities of different stakeholders in multisectoral programs (102). Many nutrition-sensitive approaches, as will be described, thus focus on more distal measures of impact (e.g., coverage, knowledge) and not more proximal measures of women's nutritional status (e.g., BMI, anemia status, etc.).