Four Actions to Change Gender Biases and Improve Policy Implementation
By Beth Rottach and Jay Gribble, originally published on Medium
In Uganda, a survivor of gender-based violence is asked by police and elected officials to negotiate with her perpetrator to resolve a conflict, rather than work within a formal legal system and referral network that exists to help them. This is the result of deep-seeded cultural and gender norms that aren’t easily tossed aside with the passage of new policies put in place to prevent gender-based violence. We saw this in our work on gender-based violence policy implementation in Uganda. Sadly, these survivors aren’t getting the services legally guaranteed to them.
It’s not an uncommon pattern. When countries create new public health policies, we expect to see change immediately. The reality is that countries approve lots of policies, but many lack guidance and funding to support implementation, so they fail to achieve their intended goals. In the health sector, gender inequality remains a barrier to implementation, especially when policy goals conflict with rigid cultural and gender norms.
We can’t discount the human factor at play. Policies are implemented by people – and people are influenced by cultural and gender norms. While some may hold progressive attitudes toward gender equality, others may internalize and reinforce the same rigid gender norms that conflict with a new policy goal. A recent study by the United Nations Development Programme found that 91% of men and 84% of women are biased against gender equality, and in many countries, bias is actually increasing. What does this mean? In their study, agreeing with statements such as “men make better political leaders than women” or “men should have more right to a job than women” are examples of respondents’ biases against gender equality.
The gender attitudes of individuals responsible for implementing policies (and making funding decisions or providing services) must be addressed or we will continue to see a range of policies fall short of achieving their goals. To change this situation, we propose four key actions for changing attitudes of decisionmakers and policy implementers so that policies with gender elements are better implemented.
Facilitate critical reflection of gender norms. In health programming, critical reflection of gender norms is an effective strategy to change attitudes toward harmful gender norms. It is a process that encourages the participant to reflect on harmful gender norms and practices and how adhering to these norms affects their lives. Applying this approach when disseminating policies to implementers and communities has the potential to change gender norms and attitudes that would otherwise inhibit policy implementation. But for this critical reflection to occur, we need to push donors and governments to create a space and funding for it.
Conduct ongoing sensitization of those responsible for implementing policies. Turnover among bureaucrats and health providers in the health sector is high. Similarly, membership of national and subnational legislative bodies has high turnover. Change takes time and conducting a single training or orientation won’t be sufficient to keep up with turnover. To create a culture that champions gender equality, regular sensitization, awareness raising, and values clarification among decisionmakers is needed. We need to make this type of programming an ongoing part of our policy efforts.
Promote a multisectoral approach to policy implementation. While gender equitable attitudes are needed to fully implement health policies, we can’t expect the health sector to fix gender inequality alone. That requires a multisectoral approach. It’s critical for the health sector to align with the justice, education, social service, and economic growth sectors on gender equality goals and work together to promote gender equitable attitudes and norms when implementing policies. Country leadership must step up to set gender equality goals and unify sectors around a common gender equality agenda.
Hold decisionmakers accountable for gender equality commitments. It takes a lot of work to develop policies, but the work doesn’t end when a policy is finalized and approved. Advocacy is necessary to ensure a policy is adequately resourced, implemented, and monitored. In a context where donor resources are decreasing and governments are increasingly expected to fund their own development priorities, strong coalitions are needed to put gender equality on the policy agenda and make sure that it remains a priority. This also sends a clear message to decisionmakers that communities value gender equality. Civil society needs to come together and hold decisionmakers at all levels of government accountable for following through on commitments, reflecting not only on gender-specific commitments, but also gender implications of health and non-health policies.
Creating gender transformative policies is an important part of improving health and gender outcomes. However, policy documents alone are not enough to catalyze widespread change, especially when policy goals conflict with rigid gender norms. Transforming gender attitudes and norms of decisionmakers and policy implementers could lead to better policy implementation. With a focus on achieving policy goals, countries could also achieve improved health and economic outcomes and opportunities, enabling all people to achieve their full potential.