Women’s empowerment and gender equality is a fundamental human right, and in order to achieve development objectives including all the social, economic and health determinants, it is crucial to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality in society. Women and children from underserved and underprivileged communities bear a particularly high burden of preventable disease and death in comparison to other groups. There are various ways by which greater gender equality can lead to improvements in the health and quality of life for women and their family members.
Women with greater agency are more likely to have fewer children, greater access to and control over better health services, and less instances of domestic violence. Additionally, the children of women with greater agency have a greater chance of survival and are more likely to receive proper childcare and basic health care. At the same time, improved health outcomes for women can help to strengthen their own agency and empowerment. Healthy women are more able to work, participate actively in society and markets and take collective action to advance their own interests. They are likely to have greater bargaining power and control over resources within the household. Therefore, collaborative action between gender and health can help to maximize the impact of gender policies on health and vice versa.
Despite the recognized benefits for health and development outcomes, mainstreaming strategies for women’s empowerment into sectoral initiatives has proved to be challenging without sustained high-level political engagement. Implementing and enforcing policy reform in any sector is complicated; regarding conservative gender norms, it’s even more complex, as any action taken is perceived to be challenging the status quo. Understanding institutional and stakeholder positions can help us to devise a tailored and successful implementation plan.
Practical strategies to capitalize on the synergies between women and children’s health outcomes and to promote women’s empowerment for better health outcomes for women and children are:
1. Understand the Political Context for Gender Reform: Gender progressive policymaking and the process of gender reform requires policymakers and institutions across sectors to be informed of their influence on gender equality and the links between gender and health. Institutional and stakeholder analyses can help to identify entry points and priorities for reform, understand opposition to reform, inform coalitions for change, and create strategies to engage critics.
2. Garner Broad-based Support: Gender-sensitive reforms within and across sectors are most likely to succeed when support is broad-based and/or high level. Engagement with civil society, the private sector and other stakeholders is imperative. Women’s organizations have historically played a critical role in promoting changes in society, attitudes and policy, in particular regarding labor legislation and family law. For example, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India has advocated and created initiatives for female workers to obtain better work, income, food and social security.
3. Create Formal Agreements, Code and Laws to Change Norms that Violate Women’s Rights: Government action can lead to transformative reforms across different sectors
through policy interventions related to improving women’s economic opportunities (e.g. parental leave, child care), closing gaps in access to assets (e.g. land and ownership rights, inheritance laws), or reducing differences between men’s and women’s voice within society (e.g. quotas for political representation) or within the household (e.g. family law governing marriage and divorce, freedom of movement or property rights).
4. Implement and Enforce Policy Reform: The implementation of policy reform in any sector is complicated, especially when policies run counter to conservative gender norms. This is especially true when the status quo is perceived to be challenged, and the constituencies who benefit are poor and politically marginalized women. Understanding institutions and stakeholder positions can help us to devise a tailored and successful implementation plan.
5. Make Policies Gender Smart: Successful gender mainstreaming ensures that the determinants of inequality are tackled at all stages of the policy cycle. This includes ensuring that policies integrate a human rights-based approach, focusing on non-discrimination and equality; participation and inclusion; accountability and the rule of law.
6. Build Technical Expertise: Successful gender mainstreaming needs to go hand-in-hand with training and capacity building for policymakers, program managers and implementer to develop gender expertise in all sectors.
7. Track Progress in Addressing Obstacles to Women’s Empowerment: Monitoring and evaluation of sectoral initiatives and cross-sectoral collaborations to improve women’s and children’s health should include indicators to measure the effect of initiatives on women’s empowerment and gender equality, including gender inequities in health.