Gender Is Important. So What? The Complexities Of Measuring It.
Seventeen years ago, the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development focused attention on the need to account for gender roles, needs, and relations when designing policies and programs that address population, health and nutrition issues. Today, the issue of gender equality is still challenging the international community as it addresses family planning. Family planning programs seek to ensure that women and men can choose, obtain, and use a wide range of high quality, affordable contraceptive methods. The relationship and interaction between women and men plays a key role in whether or not they use a family planning method.
I attended a very interesting session today (Wednesday, November 30, 2011) at the 2011 International Conference on Family Planning, titled Family Planning and Gender Issues. These presentations discussed the extreme complexity of measuring gender equality and women’s empowerment. Gender and empowerment are socio-cultural constructs that are measured using complicated variables, such as women’s autonomy, household decision-making ability, access to and control over money, freedom of movement, and experience with domestic violence. One participant posed an insightful question: Do these variables reflect how women around the world define gender equality and empowerment?
Dr. Siân Curtis, Director of MEASURE Evaluation at University of North Carolina, noted that “gender equality doesn’t lend itself to the linear models of evaluation that we currently use.” For example, the use of contraceptives does not directly increase as women’s empowerment increases; the two variables do not have a direct statistical relationship.
Likewise, Anju Malhotra, Vice President, Research, Innovation and Impact at the International Center for Research on Women (IRCW), pointed out that the gender inequalities that exist in a woman’s and man’s relationship are a manifestation of societal norms. As a result, she challenged us to think about this provocative question: Is it necessary for us (family planning advocates, program managers, and researchers) to address gender inequality in order to encourage uptake of family planning practices?
The conclusion was: It depends. In some settings, we have evidence that tells us that the use of contraceptives is high despite marked gender inequality. Bangladesh and Iran are prime examples: contraceptive prevalence rates are 56% and 74% respectively (PRB 2011 Data Sheet), and yet women’s empowerment by all measures is limited. However, in other settings, interventions addressing gender have led to improved reproductive health outcomes, such as reducing unintended pregnancies, improving maternal health, and reducing HIV/AIDS and other STIs (PRB’s 2011 A Summary Report of New Evidence that Gender Perspectives improve Reproductive Health Outcome).
Regardless of its direct effect on contraceptive use, addressing gender inequality and empowering women is necessary and important for improving development as a whole. In the words of Melanne Verveer, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, gender inequality is “one of the critical reasons why some countries progress and others do not”.
For more information on measurement and reproductive health, visit the Measurement, Learning and Evaluation Project for Urban Reproductive Health Initiative website.
Lisa Basalla is the Knowledge Management (KM) Officer for Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Communication Programs (JHU∙CCP) - KM Division.