Neutral's Not Enough: Institutionalizing Gender Equity for the Health of Women and Girls

Belkis Giorgis

Senior Technical Advisor for Gender and Capacity Building

Cross-posted from the MSH Health Impact Blog.

Photo credit: Warren Zelman, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Photo credit: Warren Zelman, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

For over four decades, MSH has promoted equal access to healthcare for women and girls in more than 135 countries, as we work toward our vision of "a world where everyone has the opportunity for a healthy life." Health for all is a human right, and we believe strengthening health systems within a gender framework can help achieve this vision.

Gender shapes the ways in which health systems are planned, delivered, and experienced by beneficiaries and providers. To meet the specific health needs of women and girls, and to address gender within the health workforce, gender must be mainstreamed globally within and throughout health systems. What does that mean? Transforming the framework of health systems from being gender neutral (not taking the interests, needs, priorities, and contributions of different genders into account)—to being gender equitable (taking into account the interests, needs, priorities, and contributions of all).

Our gender equity approach promotes access to all aspects of care. We integrate activities to empower women and girls and address gender-specific health needs into maternal, newborn and child health; family planning and reproductive health; and HIV & AIDS programs. For example, we integrate screening for cervical cancer with HIV & AIDS services for women; treatment and prevention of gender-based violence and gender-specific health risks from early or forced marriage with primary health services; and Option B+ in maternity clinics (the latest World Health Organization-recognized approach for preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV and treating the mother for life, regardless of the progression of the disease).

Women and girls have a right to have their health needs institutionalized as a consistent part of the health system. Women and girls have a right to have family planning and reproductive health services mainstreamed into the health system. Women and girls have a right to access quality care.

Strengthening the role of women leaders wherever they are within the health system (e.g. working in maternal, newborn and child health or HIV/AIDS, as advocates, or as leaders) contributes to closing gender gaps and to achieving gender equality. Greater participation of women as health service providers and planners increases the likelihood that health services meet women’s needs and rights. MSH, through USAID’s Leadership Management and Governance Project, works to create more opportunities for women to move into leadership, management and governance positions within health systems by:

  • Shifting the perception of women as mere beneficiaries to include their role as providers of health care and as leaders within health systems
  • Increasing awareness of the critical role gender plays in health systems
  • Strengthening governance structures to be more gender responsive and gender accountable
  • Building the capacity of health ministries and related institutions to address gender inequality in the health workforce
  • Promoting research and knowledge exchange on the role of women in the health workforce
  • Establishing partnerships and carrying out advocacy to promote women leaders

Our global efforts to mainstream gender in health systems include supporting Ethiopia's ministerial-level efforts to integrate gender into health systemsaddressing gender inequalities that affect women and may limit the impact of health interventions in Nigeria  and supporting orphans and vulnerable children by addressing the livelihoods of women caregivers; working with partners in Democratic Republic of the Congo integrating cervical cancer screening with other health services and addressing the needs of women who are victims of gender-based violence (while working to prevent the violence); and more.

Without targeted efforts, women won’t have a fair chance at health. As a global health organization specializing in health systems strengthening around the world, MSH is in a unique position to support gender integration in policies and programs to help reduce the significant gender gaps in access, quality, and availability of health services to women and girls. With access to all key stakeholders and institutions that contribute to health improvement, along with strong technical expertise and advocacy, MSH can help level the playing field for women’s health.