The comprehensive feminist approach to health

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Publication Date: 
Wed, 2009-09-30

Adapted from Changeons de Lunettes: Pour une approche globale et féministe de la santé,from the Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes

There are many different ways of conceptualizing health. Alternative types of knowledge have always coexisted with ‘legitimate’ or accepted knowledge. Feminists have consistently played a key role in movements challenging the biomedical approach. The comprehensive feminist approach is based on eight pillars and is characterized by its critical stance toward medical and government institutions.

With the new edition of the framework for women’s health, the Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes (RQASF – Quebec Women’s Health Action Network) offers a critical reading of the current situation and its causes, including the impact of globalization on our health and on our lives in general. It also proposes another vision and another approach to health.

A different perspective

The following are the eight pillars of the comprehensive feminist approach to health:

While biomedicine is a mechanistic concept of the body that divides the individual into a collection of component parts, the comprehensive approach is based on a conception of the human being as a whole (body and mind) interacting with their social and physical environment. Thus, this approach defines health in a holistic* way, as the result of social relationships.

In contrast to a homogenizing vision of health, the comprehensive feminist approach advocates the recognition of the physiological and social differences between the sexes, while at the same time recognizing the differences between individuals, both women and men. This acknowledgement of a person’s many different characteristics — whether they are a man or a woman, rich or poor, gay or straight, living with a disability or not, etc. — is called intersectionality.

According to the comprehensive feminist approach, in order to improve health, the social determinants of health must be taken into account; these are the factors that have the greatest impact on health, such as income, employment and housing.

Contrary to an interventionist, cure-oriented medicine, the comprehensive feminist approach believes a population’s health cannot be improved without prevention and health promotion. Health is a matter of social justice. Consequently, governments must not abdicate their responsibility to enact legislation and regulations in all areas that affect the determinants of health.

Self-care, taking charge of one’s own health, is another of the pillars of the comprehensive feminist approach. This is something that has traditionally been promoted by Quebec feminists, particularly in women’s health centres. Self-care involves a personal effort to understand the links between our health and our life circumstances. It aims to achieve a more egalitarian therapeutic relationship based on respect, communication, and the full participation of the person consulting the health care professional.

Therapists and physicians are expected to show respect for people’s autonomy and their right to informed consent. Informed consent is a fundamental right, so therapists and physicians have a responsibility to provide all available information to those who consult them.

Thus, certain types of biomedical knowledge historically based on the exclusion of women must be reexamined. It is essential to exercise vigilance and critical thinking with respect to knowledge that is presented as universal, often with the support of economic interests (the pharmaceutical industry, for example).

Finally, the comprehensive feminist approach to health is distinguished from the dominant medical approach in its openness to alternative approaches. However, these approaches must also be underpinned by guidelines and regulations to safeguard the rights of the individual, both in their relationship with the health professional and in their choice of the approach to health care that best suits them.

The full document Changeons de Lunettes (French only) is available to order at the website of the Réseau québécois d’action pour la santé des femmes (RQASF )


The RQASF is an provincial nonprofit mulitdiscplinary organziation. Their mission is to work in solidarity to better the physical and mental health of women of all walks of life. To learn more about their activities, consult their website

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