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What Does Gender Equality Mean for Health Workers—and for Health Systems?

What exactly does it mean to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment? Search these phrases on the web and the results are anything but straightforward. If you’re like me, you may even be grappling with the idea of “empowerment.”

For health workers, empowerment often means supporting clients to reach their full health potential. You can explore these concepts further in the Global Health eLearning Center’s new online course, Gender and Health Systems Strengthening—a free how-to guide for promoting gender equality in global health interventions.

A collaborative effort by several experts on gender, international development, and health systems strengthening, the course offers an overview of gender equality and women’s empowerment and delves into making these concepts a reality.

Gender and the Health Workforce

At IntraHealth International, advocating for the health workforce means examining how gender influences the way health workers are recruited and retained, the professional development opportunities available to them, and distribution of positions.

Of course, promoting gender equality in health systems has numerous implications for health workers’ clients, as well.

So where does gender come into play with data?

Take health services: if clinics only operate during hours when women are typically working, then a huge portion of the population has been left without access to basic care. The same is true if a clinic is only open at times when men are at work.To me, the most compelling part of the course is the overview on health information. Strong health information systems are the basis for strategic collection, analysis, and evaluation of data by health workers—data which they can then use to uncover sometimes hidden relationships and identify new, more effective approaches.

So where does gender come into play with data? The effect of societal gender norms on health issues isn’t always apparent until health system managers deliberately look for these effects in the data.

For example, studies on HIV regularly separate data by sex, which means researchers now know that women living with HIV are typically younger than their male counterparts. This realization has prompted the health sector to investigate the factors that place young women and adolescent girls at heightened vulnerability for HIV exposure.

This summer, I collaborated with IntraHealth’s Senegal team to document how their projects and activities promote gender equality. Our Senegal team includes midwives, doctors, advocates, and public health experts—national leaders in gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Again and again, the team emphasized to me that it is critical to understand the gender context in which a project operates.

Interventions must consider men’s roles and responsibilities in the family planning process.

Senegalese law gives men authority over much of reproductive health. A woman cannot receive birth control without her husband’s permission and may even be turned away from health centers if she seeks out a family planning consultation alone.What are the implications of this dynamic?I learned that interventions must consider men’s roles and responsibilities in the family planning process and examine how a project may affect relationships between reproductive partners.

This means our team must consider in advance possible consequences of our efforts—such as a spike in gender-based violence—and deliberately designing projects that decrease vulnerability in one area without increasing vulnerability in another.

Gender and Health Systems Strengthening offers a lens through which to understand these and other complexities in health systems.

Health workers must have the appropriate skills and information to meet the unique needs of each of their clients—including women, men, boys, and girls.

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