Story: Women’s health

In the mid-19th century around 9% of women died from childbirth complications. Infectious diseases were also major killers. In the 2000s women are more likely to die of cancer or cardiovascular disease. There are some large differences between ethnicities, and the health of Māori and Pacific Island women is generally poorer than that of Pākehā.

Story by Megan Cook
Main image: The Capital City Leisure Marchers

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Life expectancy

Since the 1800s life expectancy has increased for both women and men. On average, women live longer than men. There are also differences between genders and ethnicities. For example, a girl born in 2007 could expect to live to 83 if she was non-Māori, 75.1 if Māori, 77.5 if Pacific Island and 84.2 if Asian. People who are poorer tend to have shorter lives.

Māori health before the 1940s

When Europeans arrived in New Zealand they brought many new infectious diseases. Māori did not have immunity against these, and many became sick and died. Because of this, along with a loss of land and resources, the Māori population dropped by more than half, to only 42,000 in 1891.

There were fewer women than men – and many women became infertile, often because of disease.

Pākehā women’s health before 1940s

European settlers generally had better food and a more healthy life in New Zealand than in their home countries. Infectious disease was the leading cause of death for women, along with heart disease and death related to childbirth (the birth rate was very high in the 1800s). Better hygiene and medicine helped reduce deaths from disease and childbirth.

Women mainly worked in the home, avoiding most of the workplace accidents that killed many men. However, fire, which was used for cooking and heating, was a constant danger.

Health activism

Many groups and campaigns have worked to improve health, including that of women and Māori.

From 1870s there were campaigns to improve women’s health, which focused on issues such as hospital facilities, corsets, hygiene, maternity, sexual health and contraception.

From 1950s there was an increased interest in making childbirth less medicalised, and allowing fathers to be more involved. In the 1970s and 1980s feminists started women’s health groups.

The Maori Women’s Welfare League, started in 1951, worked to improve health, and to widen the concept of health to include emotional, whānau (family) and spiritual wellbeing, as well as physical health.

Pākehā women’s health, 1950s to 2000s

Deaths from infectious disease and in childbirth both reduced, while the major causes of death among women changed to cancer, respiratory disease and heart disease.

Māori women’s health, 1940s to 2000s

From the 1940s Māori moved from rural areas to the cities. The health of Māori women improved, due to better housing, increased immunity and more access to health care. However, their health was generally worse than that of Pākehā women, and they died younger. This was because of factors such as lower incomes, which made it harder to afford doctor’s fees, and poorer housing.

Pacific Island women’s health

Major causes of death for Pacific Island women are heart disease, stroke, diabetes and lung disease. Like Māori, Pacific Island women tend to have worse health than Pākehā women. From the 1980s programmes and services targeting Pacific people have been set up.

How to cite this page:

Megan Cook, 'Women’s health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/womens-health (accessed 26 September 2018)

Story by Megan Cook, published 5 May 2011