Development of a new National Women’s Health Policy Consultation Discussion Paper 2009

5.2.2.3 Women from disadvantaged backgrounds, including women experiencing homelessness

Page last updated: 20 April 2009

Social and economic disadvantage, for example, lower levels of income and education, unemployment, limited access to services and inadequate housing, is directly associated with reduced life expectancy, premature mortality, injury and disease incidence and prevalence, and biological and behavioural risk factors.143

A recent study showed a 32 per cent greater burden of disease for the most disadvantaged population compared with the least disadvantaged, due to higher rates of burden for most causes, particularly mental health disorders, suicide, self-harm and cardiovascular disease.144 In 200002, women living in the most disadvantaged areas had a 29 per cent higher death rate from coronary heart disease than those living in the most advantaged areas.145

Socioeconomically disadvantaged women are more likely to have a higher rate of health risk factors, such as being overweight or obese, having fewer or no daily serves of fruit, smoking tobacco, and being exposed to violence.146, 147

Women from disadvantaged backgrounds report a greater use of doctors and hospital outpatient services, but are less likely to use preventive health services.148 Participation in national preventive health screening programs for breast, cervical and bowel cancer, tends to be lowest for the most disadvantaged women.149, 150

Women who are homeless
Women who are homeless are among the most socially and economically disadvantaged in Australia. It is estimated that around 46,000 women were homeless in Australia in 2006 including people without access to safe, secure and adequate housing, such as those living on the streets, squatting, staying with friends and family, or in boarding houses and supported accommodation with no usual address. 151, 152

Homelessness has flow on effects to health and welfare and `adequate housing is essential for decent health, education, employment and community safety outcomes'.153

Women who are homeless have higher rates of chronic health problems, and infectious and sexually transmitted diseases.154 Research also suggests that there is a clear link between homelessness and mental illness and problematic substance use, with these problems more prevalent in the homeless population than in the general population155 and for many, actually developing after a person becomes homeless.156

People who are homeless are less likely than other Australians to use preventive and routine health care but are higher users of hospital emergency services, which often become the main point of access to health care.157 However, many people who are homeless do not attend any health service when needed.158

The Australian Government's White Paper on Homelessness, a key part of its social inclusion agenda, was released in 2008 and provides a national action plan to address homelessness to 2020. The National Women's Health Policy can play a role in ensuring that poor health does not become a causal factor in homelessness and in ensuring that the poor health of women who are homeless is addressed.