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An unequal world: Designing a safer, healthier place for women and girls in Argentina, Cameroon and Uganda

Equity 2030 seeks to redesign the world with women in mind. © UNFPA

Around the globe, patriarchal systems often drive women and girls out of schools, into caretaking roles, and away from pursuing certain careers

NEW YORK, United States of America, December 18, 2023/ — What would the world look like if it was designed by and for women? 

For one thing, it would be safer. Cars would be equipped with crash systems tested to protect all types of bodies, and personal protective equipment would be sized to fit female health-care workers as well as their male counterparts.

It would also be more equitable. There would be more women working across science and technology, and new innovations would combat, rather than reinforce, old gender stereotypes.

Unfortunately, this is not yet the world we live in. But it is one imagined possible by the members united under the Equity 2030 Alliance, a global initiative from UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, to realize gender equity in science, technology and financing before the decade’s end. 

“Women walk through a world that was not built for them,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the programme’s launch. “Yet we can redesign the world. We can resolve this challenge if we unite and commit to equity by design, whether in tech, science or finance. The impact will last for generations to come.”

Below, read about several actions that the Alliance’s experts and members are taking to close gender gaps in their fields. 

Gendered innovations

“Ten years ago, five years ago, it wasn’t widely understood that women were left out of important safety and medical designs,” Equity 2030 expert Londa Schiebinger told UNFPA. “We’ve made a lot of headway, and we need to make a lot more.” 

Professor Schiebinger directs the EU/US Gendered Innovations in Science, Health & Medicine, Engineering, and Environment Lab at Stanford University. She has introduced a framework for advancing gender equity that hinges on three “fixes”: Fixing the number of women and members of underrepresented groups producing science and technology, fixing the institutions that have historically excluded them, and fixing the knowledge that researchers produce. 

According to Professor Schiebinger, one answer is to integrate sex, gender and intersectional analysis into the research process. Applying a gendered lens to investigating topics ranging from chronic pain and COVID-19 to assistive robots and virtual assistants has proved to yield better results.

“We educate the workforce of the future,” she said. “If we do our job right, we can have a huge impact on equity and inclusion.”

Better research, better health care in Argentina

Becoming a health-care professional requires building habits that eventually become second nature. Think about how often health-care workers wash their hands.

Dr. Alejandro Kohn, the medical director at Hospital Británico, a leading health-care institution in Buenos Aires, Argentina, wants to add another habit to health workers’ repertoire: Thinking about the social determinants of health. “Whatever we do, we understand fully that the social determinants of health have a huge impact,” he told UNFPA. 

Social determinants of health are non-medical factors  – such as age, race, ethnicity  and gender – that influence people’s well-being. And though these characteristics do so much to shape humans’ lived experiences, they’re often overlooked in scientific and medical research. 

Hospital Británico has taken several initiatives to expose and correct these blind spots. Inspired in part by Equity 2030 Alliance, the institution took a retrospective look at its studies and found that too few examined sex and gender as variables. In response, according to Scientific Review Committee coordinator Dr. Glenda Ernst, it was decided that residents should integrate Stanford’s Health and Medicine checklist on Gendered Innovations into their research work.

“I think we have a very good opportunity to improve,” Dr. Ernst said. “Residents are the future.” 

Checklists on Gendered Innovations such as the one developed by Professor Schiebinger’s project represent helpful tools for practitioners. But perhaps even more important, according to Dr. Kohn, is ensuring that social determinants of health are part of everyday consideration and conversation. 

“You cannot have excellence of care if you don’t have proper education and proper research,” he said. “We see, here, the opportunity to grow into equity.” 

From systemic inequities to inclusion 

Around the globe, patriarchal systems often drive women and girls out of schools, into caretaking roles, and away from pursuing certain careers.

”The main obstacle faced by girls and women in Cameroon lies in social norms and stereotypes prevailing in a patriarchal society,” sociologist, researcher and University of Yaoundé 1 Associate lecturer Irène Kuetche Djembissi told UNFPA.

“Women are often assigned to take care of their homes, husbands, and raise children,” she said. “Inequalities manifest in the education system and the job market.” 

To combat these disparities, the University of Yaoundé 1 is partnering with civil society organization the Association des Acteurs de Développement (ADEV) to promote the development of gender-inclusive solutions and innovations in STEM. The organizations are also working to ensure grant-making bodies across Sub-Saharan Africa pursue gender equity in their activities and the research they support. 

Dr. Kuetche Djembissi is ADEV’s technical director, and has committed through her work there and at the University of Yaoundé 1 to exposing gender inequity through her research and to combating sexism across society.

“More and more women are willing to challenge traditional beliefs despite the patriarchal society in which we live,” she said. “One area that particularly excites me is the continuous increase in young girls’ access to mathematical, technology and scientific studies.” 

“Change is underway.” 

Mentors and mothers in Uganda 

“Women are expected to be the ones to cook, serve the food, wash the dishes, clean the house – while the husband is in the library or the laboratory,” Pauline Byakika-Kibwika, head of the Medicine Department at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, told UNFPA.

For many Ugandan women, the road to – or back into – higher education is not an easy one. As in many countries, gender norms in Uganda exert pressure on women to get married and have children; many will take significant time off from studies to deliver and raise kids.

“Societal norms have a great influence on people’s career progression,” Professor Byakika-Kibwika said. 

To combat this challenge, Makerere University established a Gender Mainstreaming Programme in 2000 to integrate gender-equitable approaches into its research and innovation practices. The programme also promotes women’s empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights while working against sexual harassment and violence against women and girls.

Gender equity in design also hinges on finding and retaining female talent. Early on, according to Professor Byakika-Kibwika, the university realized fewer women were pursuing higher education and working in leadership roles at the institution. 

“This led to intensification of mentorship activities for women,” she said. “Over the years, we’ve had more women coming back for postgraduate, master’s and PhD programmes and for technical careers – and women getting into leadership positions.” 

The university has also introduced a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, and Professor Byakika-Kibwika said she’s noticed an increased awareness of the issue around campus.  

“Things change over time, but there’s still a lot more work to be done,” she said. 

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