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Gender and Reproductive Health Empowerment  

Shannon N. Wood, Robel Yirgu, and Celia Karp

Gender and reproductive health empowerment are central concepts for understanding and improving population health and well-being. Beginning in the 1990s, global platforms, including the United Nations, began recognizing gender-based inequities, including violence against women and lack of women’s participation in education and the economy, as social determinants of health. Since the 1990s there has been growing international interest in the concept of empowerment as a means for understanding the mechanisms that drive outcomes related to health and development. Although several definitions of empowerment have evolved over the past 30 years, the pivotal work of Dr. Naila Kabeer has grounded many interpretations of women’s empowerment as a process by which a woman has the individual capacity and freedom to act on her own choices in life. To date, the lack of comparable empowerment definitions remains a major hindrance to conducting comprehensive research that links empowerment to health outcomes. Additionally, while most recognize empowerment as a multidimensional process, the majority of measures used for examining this concept have been unidimensional (focused on agency, self-efficacy, household decision-making, etc.), thereby limiting the understanding of empowerment across populations, geographies, and contexts. Subsequent framing of women’s empowerment has focused specifically on sexual and reproductive empowerment, recognizing that women may be empowered in certain realms (e.g., economic), but not in others (e.g., autonomy in contraceptive decisions). Developments in the conceptualization of reproductive empowerment since 2015 have paved the way for improved measurement and exploration of this concept, yet gaps in research remain.