Changing traditional gender roles and behaviors during adolescence can have a positive effect on the health of young men and women, as shown by three projects cited as "Best Practices" today by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
The projects—from El Salvador, Argentina and Brazil—were winners of the third annual "Best Practices Incorporating a Gender Equality Perspective in Health" contest and were honored during an event at PAHO headquarters marking International Women’s Day.
"These winning experiences show us that it is indeed possible to change traditional roles and behaviors to the benefit of adolescent men’s and women’s health," said PAHO Director Dr. Mirta Roses in presenting awards to the three winners.
The winning project from El Salvador, "Reducing maternal and neonatal mortality among youth and adolescents," helped improve maternal and neonatal survival in the town of Nahuizalco by promoting sexual and reproductive health as a right for adolescents, raising awareness of the roles and responsibilities of both male and female adolescents in parenting and sexual and reproductive health, and improving the quality of health services.
The winning project from Buenos Aires, Argentina, "Reducing risks and dangers in reproductive and sexual health in the context of comprehensive adolescent care," was developed to address high rates of teen pregnancy, abortions, and hospitalizations and deaths due to abortions. The program organized workshops in hospital waiting rooms to provide advice on sexuality, gender and rights to male and female youths. Since 2002, the workshops have provided counseling to 5,700 adolescents (5,340 females and 1,260 males) and have contributed to a decrease in hospitalizations and complications due to abortion.
The Brazilian winner, "Programs H and M: Engaging young men and empowering young women to promote gender equity and health," uses group education and a radio soap opera for youth to address unplanned pregnancy, condom use, and adolescent parenthood. Program M works to empower young women to exercise greater control over their lives, while Program H sensitizes young men to the harmful ways they are socialized and encourages them to adopt gender attitudes that are more equitable. The programs have produced greater acceptance among young men of domestic work, higher rates of condom use, and lower rates of harassment of and violence against women. Among young women, they have increased knowledge and communication with their partners about sexual health and improved self-efficacy in interpersonal relationships.
PAHO Director Dr. Roses noted that adolescents today make up one-quarter of the population of Latin America (232 million youths) and that protecting and promoting their health is critical to the region’s future. This can best be achieved through initiatives that promote gender equality and that address the different health needs of male and female adolescents.
"We need major efforts to achieve gender equality in order to improve young men and women’s health," said Dr. Roses. "For women, cultural and social norms on gender restrict their access to basic information and condemn them to an unequal and more passive role when making important sexual decisions. This undermines their autonomy and exposes them to sexual coercion, producing undesired pregnancies, abortions, and infections."
"On the other hand, traditional expectations about masculinity also lead to behaviors that increase risks, such as HIV infections due to higher numbers of sexual partners; drug and alcohol consumption; violence; traffic accidents; and refusal to seek medical attention. Consequently, to improve the lives and health of adolescents, we need also to sensitize and positively empower adolescent boys."
Vanessa Geffrard, a Haitian-American graduate student in public health and leader of Advocates for Youth, said that gender differences in health are as notable in Washington, D.C., as in her native Haiti.
"In Haiti, the infant mortality rate is 50 times that of the U.S., the percent of young women infected with HIV is more than twice the rate for young men, only one-third of women use a modern form of contraception, and most of the women dying during childbirth are young women," said Geffrard. "In comparison to D.C., which has 14.1 infant deaths out of 1,000 [births], 34.9 out of 100,000 maternal deaths, and about 23 percent of AIDS deaths being among women. This is clear evidence that there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. Both are worlds apart, but both rates are staggering, and these numbers signal a problem in how we approach women’s health."
Carmen Moreno, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM), said that helping adolescents change their own attitudes about gender equality must be part of promoting social and economic development in Latin American countries.
"Human development is only sustainable if it includes gender equality and recognizes women’s rights," she said. "Working with youths is an essential requirement for achieving this."
The "Best Practices Incorporating a Gender Equality Perspective in Health" contest was established by PAHO in 2008 to recognize and promote experiences that incorporate a perspective of gender equality in health and thereby contribute to efficiency, access and equity in policies, programs and health services. The contest seeks to identify experiences that better address the different health needs and opportunities of men and women, and gives special attention to experiences that try to transform the attitudes and patterns of healthcare providers and of women and men to improve the opportunities for both to enjoy optimal health.
This year’s contest received 70 applications from 19 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world’s oldest public health organization. It works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of the people of the Americas and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).
- International Women’s Day 2010: Gender Equality in Health: A Right for Adolescents
- Best Practices: www.paho.org/geh/bestpractices
- PAHO program on Gender, Ethnicity and Health
- Inter-American Commission of Women
- "Real Men are Responsible", article on Programa H in Perspectives in Health