What is a gender-based approach to public health?

Online Q&A
7 March 2007

Q: What is a gender-based approach to public health?

A: A gender-based approach to public health begins from the recognition of the differences between women and men. It helps us to identify the ways in which the health risks, experiences, and outcomes are different for women and men, boys and girls, and to act accordingly.

In most societies, women have lower social status than men, producing unequal power relations. For example, women have lower status in families, communities and society: They have less access to and control over resources and they have less of a say in decision-making than men. These factors have led to a systematic devaluing and neglect of women’s health.

In the past, work on women's health was focused on the health problems of women during pregnancy and childbirth. A gender-based approach has broadened our understanding of women’s health problems and helped identify ways to address them for women of all ages. Cardiovascular disease, for example, is now known to be a major cause of death among women. However, this is not well recognized, leading to delays in treatment-seeking and diagnosis among women. The identification of gender differences in cardiovascular disease has made it possible to develop more effective health promotion and prevention strategies that have improved women’s health in many countries.

Integrating gender perspectives into public health

Integrating gender perspectives into public health means that the different needs of women and men are considered at all stages of policy and programme development. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality. Gender mainstreaming in public health means addressing the role of social, cultural and biological factors that influence health outcomes, and in doing so improving programme efficiency, coverage and equity.

An example of the application of this approach can be seen in an HIV intervention in South Africa that addressed poverty, violence and the lack of power to negotiate safe sex as factors contributing to high HIV rates among women. The project – Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equity – offered women access to microfinance to become economically self-sufficient, and to gender-sensitive HIV education to help them better negotiate sexual relationships and challenge negative attitudes within the community. The project contributed to a 55% drop in the incidence of intimate partner violence, a key factor in HIV transmission, among a group of poor South African women.

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