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Global health research funders need to step up gender accountability

August 13, 2018

Adele Heagle

Research Awardee, IDRC

As Naila Kabeer stated during her talk about women’s economic empowerment at IDRC in March 2018, “institutions are the bearers of gender”. Kabeer, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Sciences, was referring to the fundamental ability of institutions to change the systemic barriers that block the realization of gender equality.

Gender equality, goal 5 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is drawing more attention to gender-focused programs, projects, and research interests across many of the globe’s funding institutions. The SDGs serve as targets for change, but as institutions that fund health research pursue these goals, how do they measure up on accountability? An overarching conclusion from my research is that to be accountable, these institutions need to present and promote their stance on gender publicly. So far, too few of them are doing so.

Gender and accountability in health research

As part of my master’s degree and in a student position at IDRC, I conducted research on gender, health, and accountability in 2017. This work deeply resonates with me as both a health researcher and as a women’s empowerment advocate who is aiming to leave a mark both locally and globally. I have gained a more holistic understanding of what global health research funding institutions are doing to effectively integrate gender in their practices. I am currently a Research Award recipient with IDRC, and I continue to find myself reflecting on gender through this critical lens.

Gender is a social determinant of health. This means that the experiences of women, men, and gender-diverse persons in different contexts fundamentally influences - and often, dictates - health and well-being. The academic literature showcases how a gender focus in health programming can lead to improved health.

Yet gender equality cannot be achieved without accountability - they go hand in hand. Failing to promote accountability on gender issues is arguably tantamount to being gender blind. This failure can contribute to the perpetual invisibility of gender issues and stagnation within the field.

Accountability on gender implies not only a responsibility to promote the issue in internal networks but also publicly. This proactive public accountability is central to how an organization pushes its particular gender agenda forward.

A review of health research funders

In 2017 I conducted a scoping review of the publicly available documentation of 27 global health research funding institutions. I evaluated their gender monitoring practices, frameworks, definitions, tools, and strategies that are available to the public online. Only seven of the 27 institutions specifically integrated gender in their health programs. Only 14 enforced gender through a research lens. These numbers are sobering and highlight the need for improvement.

Despite these challenges, various organizations are trying to build their accountability measures on gender. IDRC is a fundamental player in research for development, including global health. Though IDRC does not have a publically available gender strategy, it is working to articulate a gendered approach on public platforms. This includes platforms such as the Centre’s website and external-facing publications. IDRC consistently engages and leads on local and global conversations on gender from hosting speaker series to supporting feminist research innovations. IDRC’s Maternal and Child Health Program focuses on innovations that support the most marginalized populations on the basis of gender, including the facilitation of stakeholder meetings to discuss gender. These tools are fostering important dialogues between seasoned experts and public voices.

My review mirrored the findings from The Global Health 50/50 Report, noting that only one in three global health organizations explicitly outline their commitment to gender. The report similarly pushes for improved institutional accountability and urges organizations to “walk the talk” on their gender practices.

Challenges to accountability

Accountability to gender comes with its own challenges. My scoping review shed light on the risks of a prescriptive bias from developing countries. Policy alignment with SDGs often occurs in governments and institutions from the most economically-developed countries, but we need more examples of interventions that have translated gender equality goals in specific contexts, adapting them to local realities and involving representatives across many sectors of society.

Proactive accountability as a catalyst for change

Explicit inclusion of gender in global health research funding may be a choice, but the impact of this decision is a lived reality. Institutions must be purposeful, proactive, and vocal on their commitments of accountability to gender. As an emerging researcher I find myself reflecting on the significance of these values in my work and that of the organizations that support me.

How funding institutions are responding to the commitment to gender equality while remaining accountable presents new and exciting opportunities for change. Change is a process, and to fully realize SDG 5, this process begins with more open dialogues and a robust agenda to bring these conversations to the public domain.

Adele Heagle is an IDRC research awardee for the Maternal and Child Health program and the Advisory Committee on Research Ethics.

Photo: Stephan Gladieu / World Bank