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Gender-based Global Health?

Indian Mother and Child

Flickr, DFID

Mother and child, Madhya Pradesh, India

Maybe even asking this question is a bad idea. Maybe it’s just me — either because I’m a man and/or a nerd.

But I can’t help but wonder if the latest trend of focusing the global health agenda on women and girls could actually do more harm than good.

There are many reasons why this would seem an obvious choice, why it just makes sense to focus health efforts on women and girls. Here are just a few of those reasons:

  1. Women give birth to all of us. A healthy birth and childhood prevents a lot of ills.
  2. Girls grow up to be women.
  3. Females often get short shrift in many communities and cultures due to gender discrimination. Putting an emphasis on improving female health and welfare can reduce unhealthy inequities.

I don’t think anyone would argue with those fundamental assumptions. Given these realities, it appears both wise and just to focus global health efforts on women and girls.

But how exactly would this be carried out? Would we set up clinics and health facilities just for women? How would this work in a poor community where boys and men don’t have access to care?

Would a gender-based approach to the global health agenda create a backlash? Would recipient governments (in those countries where girls now suffer the most and which, of course, are mostly run by men) simply accept this strategy since another goal is ownership and responsibility for health programs?

Two policy experts, Miriam Temin and Ruth Levine at the Center for Global Development, have sketched out how they think a more girlish global health strategy should look. In Start With a Girl: A New Agenda for Global Health, Temin and Levine offer recommendations and rationales.

Some of them — making adolescent girls’ health a top priority, outlawing child marriage, ensuring that girls complete secondary education — appear quite sound and well-reasoned. But some sentences and recommendations sound just like, well, sound-bites:

For example: ‘”If a health system is failing girls, it’s failing.”

Okay, but isn’t that also true if the system is failing boys? Their solution is to “Make Health Systems Work for Girls.” Sounds more like a slogan than a specific, workable plan.

When you look at it, the real problem here is injustice suffered by girls and women worldwide.

Health disparities are mostly a product of injustice, not usually the root cause. The question is if framing these problems as health issues — as opposed to hitting them directly as social, economic and political problems — is the right approach.

Or will we be treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease?

What do you think?


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.