by Pamela W. Barnes
Today is International Women's Day and in honor of that I wanted to share some of the great work being done to improve gender equity and women's health. Just yesterday, I spent the day at the United Nations where I received an award from Salma Hayek Pinault and the Avon Foundation for my organization's work in Tanzania to end violence against women.
It was truly gratifying to see the incredible progress that is happening around the world when it comes to speaking out about violence and to receive recognition for our project, which challenges traditional gender roles, engages men to become champions and encourages men to take a stand against violence in their communities.
Over the last 20 years, we have seen incredible progress made by programs that encourage men and women to reevaluate rigid expectations about gender and challenge inequality in their communities. This can have a powerful impact on health. For example, risk-taking behaviors associated with being a man, such as substance abuse and unsafe sex with multiple partners, are often seen as ways to affirm manhood. At the same time, the need to appear invulnerable makes men less likely to seek necessary medical help. The vast majority of programs that address societal gender messages to date, however, have been aimed at men and women separately.
What we have learned from our work across more than 15 countries—from Texas to Tanzania—is that synchronizing programs and focusing on both men and women together increases the likelihood of success and leads to better health outcomes. For example, EngenderHealth is bringing together co-ed groups of adolescents in Austin, Texas, to critically analyze harmful messages so they can better prevent pregnancy, disease and violence in their relationships. Preliminary results show that participants are able to articulate at least one key message from the program such as, "I decide if and when to have sex," or "I decide what being a man or woman means to me," which is a key step toward behavioral change.
Other organizations have also been able to demonstrate the benefits of working with both sexes together. A compelling example with successful results comes from the Intervention with Microfinance for AIDS and Gender Equality project in South Africa, which engages both women and men in addressing HIV, domestic violence and the impact of harmful gender norms. The project led to a profound drop—by 50 percent—of intimate partner violence and sexual violence in the villages where it took place.
Moving forward, we must invest in and create programs that focus on engaging men and women to promote equality. This is a cause that must be reinforced by not only individuals, communities, schools and churches, but also donor agencies and international organizations.
We have a responsibility to promote and protect women's rights and health. On International Women's Day, it's important to realize that we cannot succeed unless we engage women and men and recognize the crucial roles they both have to play in the fight for gender equity.
Pamela W. Barnes (@PamWBarnes) is President and Chief Executive Officer of EngenderHealth, a not-for-profit global women's health organization committed to ensuring that every pregnancy is planned, every child is wanted and every mother has the best chance at survival. Ms. Barnes has more than 30 years of managerial and global health experience in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. She was most recently president and chief executive officer of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.