Gender Mainstreaming & Other Paris Hilton Insights

13 / 09 / 2012

Pamposh Verma is a young medical student also undertaking a Diploma of Liberal Arts in Gender Studies. A version of this piece initially appeared in The Global Health Mentoring Program Annual Magazine, 1st Edition (August 2012). With permission, we have reproduced an edited version of the article for Sheilas readers, which highlights the importance of gender mainstreaming in health.

“Every woman should have four pets in her life: a mink in her closet, a jaguar in her garage, a tiger in her bed, and a jackass who pays for everything.”

– Paris Hilton

When I Googled the words “quotes about women”, I was alarmed that popular heiress Paris Hilton’s struck me as the most poetic.

Looking for something poignant to italicise as my attention-grabbing opening sentence for this article on gender, sex and health; I was surprised to be attracted to this quote just because it lacked delicacy.

Her words do not paint the picture of a delicate woman. The psychological/financial implications of the crass dominatrix she promotes aside, I was impressed. Her premises may be weak, but Paris certainly confronts ideas of traditional sex roles.

I doubt I’ll be as provocative as Paris, but I’d also like to start you thinking about men, women and the mainstream.

I’m already nervous. Writing down ‘gender’ surely provokes prophecies of the inevitable ‘F’ word (feminism) and a steady decline into raw tales of the devastating injustice of having to shave my legs and not travel alone at night. So let me see if I can instead talk about the more delicate issues facing women worldwide, keeping in mind Hilton’s demonstration that delicacy isn’t always the best approach in talking about women.

To start with, the most basic of medical ordeals only women are capable of – childbirth – greets the beginning of a human life with an impossibly dilated cervix.  Such slippery miracles are barely delicate (ask any mother).

It’s strange, then, that the experiences of women – and what makes them different to men – is only spoken about with a delicate few: feminists, maternal health workers, special interest GPs, and other sealed sections of the community. Many conversations about women are not yet popular.

But gender discrimination is. It exists in both developing and developed countries. The social constructs of sex roles are often deeply entrenched with pervasive impacts on individual and public health. Gender needs to be understood clearly as a “cross-cutting sociocultural variable” (1) – one with indelicate consequences for international development.

The premises of arguing for gender equality as a crux of public health are few and simple:

Gender inequality does not only harm women. Failure to foster equal rights for women is not a women’s issue – it is a human one. This must be the logical premise from which attention to gender mainstreaming – the bringing of knowledge of gender into the mainstream – is founded.

We know that women suffer.  We know that over 1600 women and 10,000 newborns die daily from preventable complications during childbirth (2). 15 to 71% of women around the world have suffered physical or sexual violence from an intimate male partner (3).  Archaic practices such as female genital mutilation can add to the 140 million currently living with the consequences of disempowerment (4).  Women can be labeled ‘sluts’ and victim-blamed for rape or sexual assault – a crime which affected 3,784 people last year in Victoria alone (3,280 of these were female) (5).

No injustice stops being harmful simply because another one exists. Even in affluent Western societies, discrimination exists. The rise in eating disorders, risky surgical transformations and botoxing of children – influenced by the ever-tightening social caliper on the female mind of what it means to be ‘beautiful’ – is largely a first world problem (6). It’s still a problem.


Gender mainstreaming: The stratified level in which discrimination exists in different societies must become more apparent.

Gender mainstreaming refers to the concept of assessing the impacts of policy action on men and women in the health sector. It recognises that it is not enough to add a gender component to already completed research/intervention, and suggests health professionals should think about the ways gender affects health in terms of “biological vulnerability, exposure to health risks, experiences of disease and disability, and access to medical care and public health services” (7).

Gender mainstreaming was first established as the global strategy for promoting gender equality in health through ‘Platform for Action’ at the UN 4th World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995 (8). A more recent development occurred in 2007, with the 60th World Health Organisation (WHO) Assembly passing resolution WHA60.25 on integrating gender analysis and actions into the work of the World Health Organisaton. It has 4 key strategic directions:

  • – Build capacity for gender analysis and planning
  • – Bring gender concerns into the mainstream of WHO’s management
  • – Promote the use of sex-disaggregated data and gender analysis
  • – Establish accountability (9)

Gender Mainstreaming establishes a new cross-cutting sociocultural variable, asking the educated professionals of policy-making to understand that gender impacts health. It asks them to think about their language. In 1995, it was decided that ‘equality’, not ‘equity’, would be the decided goal. Equality suggests that the rights of people should not depend on them being born male or female; whereas equity usually interprets social justice based on traditions, customs, cultures or religions which are often detrimental to women. Equality means that the interests, needs and perceptions of women and men will be given equal weight in policy and planning; not that the roles and responsibilities of men will remain the same (9). The language of gender is delicate, but it’s also important.


There are conceptual premises that those working in health need to grasp…

When women suffer, they don’t do it alone. “Feminism” as a movement cannot exist in vacuum when the purpose of its existence is to abolish the need for its existence. Such battles cannot be won from the inside alone.  Gender inequality is also devastating for men. “Without achieving [UN] Millennium Development Goal 3 […] gender equality and empowerment of women – the other MDGs will not be met by 2015” (10).  There is no doubt that unhealthy and oppressed women create sick societies.

Oxfam knows that women suffer. Oxfam also knows that “women are the powerhouses of developing countries: they produce most of the food, make up a third of the official labour force and care for families and homes” (11). But these sorts of statements must be read with attention.

Women are one face of ending poverty… Projects that empower women, such as the ActionAid Fertile Ground campaign (12), are indispensably important – distinguishing key knowledge such as “female farmers with the same level of access to resources as males could boost their productivity by 20%–30% and reduce the number of hungry people around the world by 100 million”  (13).

… but empowerment needs to occur as part of a wider focus. Female-specific targeted health interventions are crucial to public health advancement in developed and developing countries, but only as a complementary effort to gender mainstreaming strategies which build male and community support for female empowerment.


Studies on the impact of gender on health have been done by particular health bodies to great effect, and as Paris Hilton knows all too well, it’s important to celebrate success.  World Bank research confirms links between gender equality and sustainable development – especially in areas where sex roles are visible such as health, education and agriculture. Studies in 46 developing countries showed that a 1% rise in women’s literacy has a positive effect – in terms of improved family health, increased productivity and reduced family size – 3 times greater than a 1% rise in the number of doctors (14).

Education is empowerment. It gives women the capacity to take control of their lives, to have the conversations with men that are at the heart of establishing the core of sustainable development: reproductive rights. It allows women to have an income, support families, and defeat social injustice. Studies have proven that women’s empowerment is good for everyone.  This knowledge needs to become mainstream.

Gender mainstreaming is not a utopian ideal. It can grow in the imperfect world we live in now – all it takes is some popularity. There are really only two bases of promoting gender equality as the foundation for public health. The first is that inequality is not an issue of the oppressed. Equality between sexes is a human issue; and a focus on female empowerment needs to involve men. The second is that gender equality is an essential precondition for sustainable societal development; and a useful indicator of it as well.  This dual rationale does not need the delicacy of corporate watchdogs to be effective in promoting gender equality. It needs the embodiment of these principles by educated professionals.

I’ll leave the adoption of minks, tigers, jaguars and jackasses to the discretion of the reader. But gender mainstreaming ought to become domestic to both men and women.



  1. Important Concepts Underlying Gender Mainstreaming, [factsheet by]: United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. August 2001 available from:
  2. 10 Facts on Women’s Health- Gender Equality is Good For Health [factsheet]: World Health Organisation 2009. Available from:
  3. World Health Organisation. Gender, Women and Health. 2009-2012. Available from:
  4. Female genital mutilation: World Health Organisation, Fact Sheet 241, February 2012. Available from:
  5. 4510.0 – Recorded Crime – Victims, Australia, 2011, Victoria, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012. Available from:
  6. Orbach S.  Susie Orbach Speaks at the UN Commission on the Status of Women. In:AnyBody-AnyBody’s Vent, publishers. Proceedings of “Body Image in the Media: Using Education to Challenge Stereotypes”. March 6, 2012 in New York City. Transcript available online at:
  7. Department of Gender, Women and Health; Family and Community Health: World Health Organisation. Gender and Mental Health Research (gender and health research series). WHO library, 2004. Available from:
  8. Commission on the Status of Women: Follow-up to Beijing. UN Women, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women 2001. Available from:
  9. World Health Organisation; Gender, Women and Health. What is “gender mainstreaming?” 2009-2012. Available from:
  10. World Health Organisation. Gender, Women and Health. 2009-2012. Available from:
  11. Explore: Gender Equality. Oxfam Australia. Available from  and
  12. Act!onaid Australia.  Fertile Ground- supporting the women who feed the world. 27 May 2011. Available from
  13. Oxfam Australia. Women growing a new future. 21 June 2011. Available from:
  14. Positive impacts from incorporating gender perspectives into the substantive work of the United Nations, by the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, United Nations, March 2001. Available from: