The hidden penalties of gender inequality: fetal origins of ill-health

Econ Hum Biol. 2003 Jan;1(1):105-21. doi: 10.1016/s1570-677x(02)00006-0.


This paper is concerned with the interconnections between gender inequality and maternal deprivation, on the one hand, and the health of children (of either sex) and of adults that the children grow into (again, of either sex). The basic message of the paper is that women's deprivation in terms of nutrition and healthcare rebounds on the society as a whole in the form of ill-health of their offspring-males and females alike-both as children and as adults. There are a variety of pathways through which women's deprivation can affect the health of the society as a whole. This paper focuses on the pathways that operate through undernourishment of the mother. Maternal deprivation adversely affects the health of the fetus, which in turn leads to long-term health risks that extend not just into childhood but into adulthood as well. There are, however, important differences in the way children and adults experience the consequences of maternal deprivation via fetal deprivation. In particular, the pathways that lead to their respective risk factors and the circumstances under which those risk factors actually translate into ill-health are very different. These differences are best understood through the concept of 'overlapping health transition' in which two different regimes of diseases coexist side by side. Gender inequality exacerbates the old regime of diseases among the less affluent through the pathway of childhood undernutrition. At the same time it also exacerbates the new regime of diseases among the relatively more affluent through a pathway that has come to be known as the 'Barker hypothesis'. Gender inequality thus leads to a double jeopardy-simultaneously aggravating both regimes of diseases and thus raising the economic cost of overlapping health transition.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Asia, Western / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Child Welfare*
  • Female
  • Fetal Development*
  • Health Transition*
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Malnutrition / complications
  • Malnutrition / epidemiology
  • Maternal Welfare
  • Middle Aged
  • Pregnancy
  • Prejudice*
  • Social Class*
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Women's Health*