October 23, 2021

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Power and health: Research links gender roles to health risks among Mosuo women

Boats outside a Mosuo community in China. Boats outside a Mosuo community in China.
Boats outside a Mosuo community in China. Image Credit: Provided photo.

Women typically live longer lives than men in most societies, but suffer from worse health. The reason may not lie with female biology but with gender roles, according to a study recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Assistant Professor of Anthropology Katherine Wander was among the authors of the article on gender disparities in inflammation and hypertension among the Mosuo in China.

The Mosuo are a single ethnic group with unifying cultural, practical and religious beliefs across their many villages, with one key exception: the villages in one area are matrilineal, passing down property and identity through the female line, and spouses live apart in their own natal households. The other group is patrilineal, with property passing down through the male line, men holding household authority and wives moving to their husbands’ households.

Women in patriarchal Mosuo communities experienced higher levels of inflammation and hypertension than their matriarchal counterparts, according to the article. Both conditions can be precursors of chronic disease, including diabetes and heart disease, and are linked with a range of social factors, including poverty, stress, traumatic childhoods and a lack of social support.

Wander offered some explanations for the health disparities between the two groups of Mosuo women. If women in matrilineal societies place a higher priority on purchasing high-quality food for their households, that could lead to better nutrition for women and girls, for example.

Psychosocial stress is another likely factor. In matrilineal communities, women tend to be more involved in decision-making, Wander said, and fewer face the stress of moving away from their families and childhood friends.

“Many of the social determinants of health — racism, poverty, sexism — seem to act through a stress pathway,” she explained. “Patriliny may involve subtle, chronic stresses for women, like distance from their family and limited autonomy, that activate cortisol and other physiological pathways of the stress response. Over time, this may take a toll on the body, increasing inflammation and blood pressures.”

While the study showed a clear health benefit to women in matrilineal Mosuo societies, men didn’t experience a similar health disparity in the two groups. It turns out that matrilineal and patrilineal communities aren’t exact opposites in terms of gender roles. Men in matrilineal communities engage in many activities outside the household — including community leadership and decision-making — that aren’t typically available to women in patrilineal communities, Wander explained.

Gauging the impact of culture and social environment on disease risk can be challenging because it’s not possible to conduct a randomized controlled trial. But research with the Mosuo suggests that when social differences can be isolated from other factors, their influence on health may be substantial.

“It is so easy to attribute disease risk and health outcomes entirely to biological processes — and at some level, of course, all health outcomes do involve biological processes. But we’re learning more and more that biological disease processes can be strongly influenced by the social environment,” Wander said.

“Our findings suggest that women’s health — not only among the Mosuo, but probably more broadly — could be improved by changes to gender norms,” she said.

Posted in: In the World, Harpur