Both gender and equity are important to better understand differences in health status, health risks and health outcomes between and among groups of women and men across various dimensions. Understanding how gender norms, roles and relations interact with other determinants of health can highlight where gender inequalities and social inequities in health lie, and what communities are left behind. This in turn can inform actions to better assess and address barriers and facilitating factors and strengthen our efforts within and beyond the health sector, to ensure that the health and safety needs and realities of all women, men, girls and boys are granted equal attention.
Gender and sex are both determinants of health and although both these terms can sometimes be mistakenly used interchangeably, they are in fact different.
Sex refers to the different biological and physiological characteristics of males and females, such as reproductive organs, chromosomes, and hormones¹.
Gender refers to socially constructed characteristics², such as roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a society considers appropriate for men and women”. These socially constructed characteristics, referred to commonly as norms, roles and relations of and between groups of women and men are taught, vary from society to society and can include how women and men should interact with others of the same or opposite sex in the household, community and workplace¹.
These socially constructed characteristics can also lead to differences in things such as exposure to disease and injury, access to essential health services and/or participation in the labour force, to name a few. When people or groups do not “fit” these established norms, they can face stigma, discrimination or social exclusion, which can also poorly impact their health¹.
Although gender refers to both women and men, discussions around gender have sometimes only focused on the health and rights of women and girls, largely because they have historically faced and continue to face multiple disadvantages, in things such as accessing health information and services due to gender norms, roles and relations. Working towards achieving gender equality in health, means also recognizing that men and boys also experience norms, roles and relations that poorly affect their health.
(1) Gender mainstreaming for health managers: a practical approach. Participant’s Notes. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2011.
(2) Gender and Health [website] (https://www.who.int/health-topics/gender#tab=tab_1, accessed 15 October 2020)
Equity is defined as “the absence of avoidable or remediable differences among groups of people, whether those groups are defined socially, economically, demographically, or geographically”³
Equity although is often used interchangeable with equality, is different from equality, in that it looks at the different needs, preferences and interests of community groups and recognizes that different treatment may be needed to reflect the realities of different groups of women, men, girls and boys, to ensure equality of opportunity. In other words, equity recognizes social and economic conditions a person is living in that may influence and create these differences in things like access to health services, health status, and health outcomes. Equity is a means to achieve equality.
(3) Equity [web site] (https://www.who.int/health-topics/gender, accessed 15 October 2020).
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