Gender, Health and Empowerment

Photo credit: The Nutrition Post (, Oct. 2013)

By Chandra Allen

“The obstacles that stand in the way of better health for women are not primarily technical or medical in nature. They are social and political, and the two go together.

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organization, Women and health: today’s evidence tomorrow’s agenda, November 2009

Over the last few months, my work has been focusing on the impact of gender on healthcare.  I had the opportunity to do a presentation for a group of healthcare professionals highlighting the effect of gender on health and healthcare experiences.  I also organized a lunch time discussion about reproductive rights at the Center where we heard from an expert panel of activists representing local organizations who are on the frontlines of this advocacy work.  All of this was amidst the backdrop of a pending vote on Amendment 1, a constitutional amendment critically impacting health decisions for women on the mid-term ballot in Tennessee.  Perhaps many of us have been thinking recently about the intersection of gender and health.

At the forefront of the healthcare discussion for me are issues of equitable access (to the care that one wants and needs) as well as being empowered to make the decisions that one feels are best.  These are foundational concerns of justice. As health care for women becomes increasingly politicized, I can’t help but be reminded of the powerful words of Hilary Rodham Clinton when she spoke at the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and declared, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”  This declaration rang out around the world then and has been reverberating for me over the last few months.

As is the case with most issues, the impact of gender on health is complex and multi-faceted.  There are many structures and norms that influence who has access to quality, affordable care and who is denied access.  The structure of our global economy consistently creates economic, political, social, and cultural barriers to good care that disproportionately affect women and girls.  We could add many layers to that statement and say, for example, that women of color, women of limited income, transgender women, and women in the global south experience some of the most obstacles to care.  As we advocate for the rights of women and girls, we are advocating for the rights of humanity.  We acknowledge that each of has value and deserve an opportunity for adequate care and quality of life.


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The lived experiences and the research overwhelming show that women are responsible for the majority of health care decisions in most households.  In most communities, women are the “gatekeepers” of health.  The schools of thought that I resonate with the most are not just advocating for access to necessary care for women, but they are advocating for a framework of empowerment.  When women are empowered to have control over their health decisions and they have access to care; the health of the whole family generally improves.  Women traditionally invest social advances, economic successes, and educational gains back in to their families and their communities.  When women are informed about health care choices, have access to quality care, and have the ability to make healthcare decisions for themselves – families improve, communities improve, societies improve.

I believe that we are on the journey to gender equity in healthcare.  The support behind gender equitable care is gaining momentum and there are new frameworks of care that take in to account the nuances of each individual’s needs and experiences.  I am hopeful that we will have more money for research and initiatives that positively impact women, girls, and many other marginalized populations.  I have to be hopeful that in the not so distant future all of us will have access to a full range of services that constitute quality, affordable healthcare.

I am sometimes discouraged in my hopes when I live in a state that criminalizes women for being pregnant and addicted to drugs while ignoring the proper infrastructure necessary to provide care for these women and neglecting to take in to account the broader systemic structures that continue to push these women to the margins of society.  I am heartbroken when my state votes to seize the power from women to make important, deeply personal health care decisions for themselves.

Increasing gender equity in healthcare seems like a monumental task to tackle and it most certainly is.  But I am inspired by the determination of so many to seek changes in the system that provides more women, more girls, and more individuals access to quality healthcare.  I am encouraged when I hear the healthcare professionals I talked with be committed to having conversations about how to improve healthcare practices that honor the needs and experiences of the individuals they care for.  It was invigorating to hear grassroots activists fighting for the rights of women in my home state.  There is great work being done to bridge the gap for women’s access to healthcare and for more equitable access for everyone.  We are on the journey.  I am witnessing this work and continue to celebrate the victories large and small along the way.

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Chandra Allen is a native Nashvillian.  She earned a Bachelor’s degree in German (honors) from Davidson College in North Carolina and a Master of Divinity degree from Vanderbilt Divinity School.  She is currently an Assistant Director of Education, Programs, and Connections at Scarritt-Bennett Center where she plans programs focused on women’s leadership and women’s empowerment.  Chandra is passionate about creating an authentic environment where women and men gather to explore and awaken the strength of their voices, experiences, and creativity to effect positive change in their communities and for themselves.