27 January 2016

Public Health in the Post-2015 Development Agenda Series: Working to Promote Gender Equality among Public Health Initiatives

This is the sixth article of the UNAI series “Public Health in the post-2015 development agenda”. Schools and departments of Public Health at UNAI member institutions were asked to submit articles highlighting research and work relating to the proposed SDGs and to showcase the importance of public health in the post-2015 development agenda. Please note that the articles are for discussion, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.

According to a report by the World Health Organization gender inequality damages the physical and mental health of millions of girls and women across the globe, and has negative consequences for men and boys as well.  Gender inequality is a human rights issue that has wide ranging effects on the economic, social and cultural fabric of communities and represents a major hurdle to achieving key development indicators.  In 2015 the McKinsey Global Institute published a study that analyzed current and potential economic output from 95 countries and found that if men and women received equal pay and had equitable representation across all fields this would add US$ 28 trillion dollars to Global GDP by 2025. At present, even though women make up 50 per cent of the world’s population, they contribute 37 per cent to the global GDP.  This financial projection, which can become a reality when gender inequality is addressed, could play an important role in building healthier communities and stronger economies globally.

Since gender inequality affects societies globally, taking action to improve equity in healthcare and ensure that women’s rights to health are addressed are among the most effective and direct strategies to reduce health inequities and promote the effective use of health resources in a community. Consistent implementation of human rights instruments in health care services can be a powerful mechanism to motivate all stakeholders including UN Member States, nongovernmental organizations, foundations and academic institutions, and empower women themselves to make Sustainable Development Goal # 5 (Gender Equality), an integral component of public health initiatives and  service delivery. 

Gender inequalities are a strong driver of both non communicable diseases such as diabetes, and infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, STIs, tuberculosis, and malaria.  Often, women and girls tend to have unequal power and are sidelined in sexual relationships, economic decision-making, and lack of access to health information and services, all of which greatly influence their vulnerability to disease. Traditional power dynamics among couples, societal norms and gender roles may undermine a woman’s ability to receive antenatal care and access to skilled birth attendants during delivery including services to diagnose, receive treatment and thus prevent mother-to-child transmission services (PMTCT) when an expectant mother is HIV-positive.

Gender politics are often barriers which prevent women and girls from accessing malarial prophylaxis or insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, receiving necessary immunizations or getting treatment for a sick child without a partner’s permission.

Many women who work in construction, factories and the agricultural sector to name a few often do not have access to protective clothing and gear and this increases their risk of injury and occupational disease. Women and young girls often walk barefoot and this increases their risk of worm infestation and is a major contributor to anemia. These are a few examples which illustrate how gender inequality affects the health of women and girls in many societies.

Gender and Public health are two branches of the same tree as stated by Dr. Nafsiah Mboi, former Minister of Health for the Republic of Indonesia, and this emphasizes why many global health activists are working to make sure gender specific policies are implemented in the promotion and practice of public health.

New York Medical College (NYMC) has been working on mainstreaming the Sustainable Development Goals into the school’s global health curricula in both student instruction and the implementation of public health projects undertaken by faculty and students.   There has been specific emphasis on including the promotion of gender equality in public health initiatives to advance both SDG #3 (Good Health and Well Being) and SDG #5. These goals have been at the core of the service-related projects undertaken by the faculty and the students at the University including:

  • NYMC Safe Motherhood Project which contributed 1,600 Safe Motherhood kits, 108 boxes of hospital supplies and funds for building a maternity waiting room for socially disadvantaged pregnant women in Malawi;
  • NYMC campaign to collect 300 bottles of Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs to help women affected by myalgia after an epidemic of chikungunya virus infection in Grenada;
  • Donation of a portable ultrasound machine to provide testing for economically disadvantaged pregnant women in Grenada. In addition there was a shipment of 900 birthing kits sent to help pregnant women in the country;
  • Shipment of 975 birthing kits and warm clothes to assist women and girls who were affected by the earthquake in Nepal;
  • Shipment of 50 boxes of barrier supplies, including masks, gloves and sheets, to Liberia to assist in the aftermath of the Ebola crisis.

As the global community adopts and implements the SDG framework, it is crucial for public health practitioners, Member States, donors, UN agencies and other actors to work together to ensure the seamless integration of gender equality into public health policy and practice worldwide.

Dr. Padmini Murthy is Associate Professor of Public Health Practice and Director of Global Health at New York Medical College. She directs the online Global Health certificate program and teaches courses on women’s health and human rights and primary healthcare which focus on gender inequalities. She is widely published and her book Women’s Global Health and Human Rights is being used as an interdisciplinary reference book in many universities. She currently serves as Program Chair of International Health Section and Advisory Member of the Nation’s Health Publication of the American Public Health Association.  She is the Medical Women’s International Association NGO representative to the United Nations.