The importance of understanding gender equity in humanitarian responses to health issues

Valerie Percival is an Assistant Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She leads the ReBUILD project ‘Building Back Better: Taking forward empirical research on the opportunities and constraints for building gender responsive health systems in post conflict contexts’. This is the focus of Valerie’s HEART talks video.

The first issue for humanitarian focus tends to be reproductive and maternal health as most pressing. Humanitarian response often neglects the social and cultural norms that drive health issues. These norms often denigrate and devalue women and girls resulting in a culture of oppression. For men these cultural norms can promote violence and discrimination. These norms need to be recognised. When you are rebuilding health systems, it is not just enough to provide good healthcare services; it is important to understand why that person is presenting with the complications that they have. For example, for sexual violence we don’t just want to patch women up and send them back to the same circumstances that led to their ill-health. There is a need to engage in social change in order to stop that culture.

One of the ReBUILD initiatives that Valerie was involved in looked at the consolidated appeal process. They noticed that many of the projects labelled as gender sensitive projects only addressed women’s issues such as maternal and reproductive health. These are really important initiatives but if you really want to address gender in humanitarian contexts you need to go further. You need to look at the context in which women and men are living and try and change those sets of circumstances. In terms of the long-term efforts to rebuild health systems, this often begins right after the conflict ends. Health policies that focus on bringing women into leadership positions in the health sector are promoting women and their empowerment as healthcare deliverers. Health information should be disaggregated by sex so that you can understand the differential health issues that affect women and men.

The humanitarian community has worked with the security sector and the police forces to try and ensure that they address some of the causes of gender-based violence but it is important to go beyond that, particularly to look to women’s groups and community groups within a conflict-affected setting.

Read Valerie Percival’s research paper: Health systems and gender in post-conflict contexts: building back better?

For more on gender and post-conflict health systems see other HEART talks in this series:

  • Sarah Ssali on understanding gender issues in health systems strengthening in post-conflict Uganda
  • Haja Wurie on incorporating gender into health systems reconstruction in post-Ebola Sierra Leone
  • Rosemary Morgan on gender in health systems research
  • Group interview with Sarah Ssali, Sally Theobald, Rosemary Morgan and Asha George on essential gender issues in relation to health systems.

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