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A novel approach to achieving gender equality and empowering women

Written by Rida Qureshi, rising junior in anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and 2022 Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program participant

A peer leader provides sex workers with education on safe sex practices and the benefits of PrEP for HIV prevention at a clinic in the Busia District of Uganda. Photo credit: University Research Co. LLC

Shanti Parikh, PhD, chair of African and African American studies and professor of anthropology at Washington University, began her talk with the summer program’s Public and Global Health cohort with a question: “How do we develop global policies that can unfold in different lived realities?” Centered on the fifth Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) (achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls), Parikh’s presentation sought to answer this question by first reflecting on the origin of global policy.

World War II’s events made it clear to world leaders that instability in one country posed a grave threat to all neighboring states. Recognizing the need for common global stability, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Atlantic Charter, a declaration that conceptualized the United Nations (UN) and opened the door for revolutionary foreign aid policies like the Marshall Plan. Over fifty years later, leaders from 189 countries signed the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight measurable targets to improve global quality of life. 

Two of these eight goals prioritized gender equality and maternal health, and though they provided a much needed blueprint for women’s programs worldwide, they were limited in scope. As Dr. Parikh explained, many women’s organizations were forced to focus solely on maternal care to qualify for necessary grants, thus leaving issues like gender violence unaddressed. By contrast, the Sustainable Development Goals introduced in 2015 expanded considerations of gender and heavily emphasized intersectionality — the overlapping roles that race, class, and gender can have in perpetuating inequity.

Nonetheless, important discussions must be had to refine the SDGs. For instance, whose definition of “empowerment” is used? Who has a seat at the table when funding is decided? What minorities exist within countries, and are their voices heard? Raw data, too, must be questioned – which groups are excluded from datasets? To address this issue, anthropologists are broadening their data collection methods to include qualitative responses, like stories and drawings.

One such anthropologist is Parikh herself, who became interested in the stories people have to share during her time in Kenya as a Peace Corp Small Business Advisor. Positioned along the trans-Africa highway just as HIV/AIDS cases had begun to spike, Parikh saw firsthand how mobility, culture, and gender roles influenced how people came in contact with HIV and coped with their diagnoses. She focused her later research efforts in Uganda – a country often hailed as an “HIV/AIDS Success Story” – and has studied everything from love letters written by teenagers to maps drawn by truckers that purchase sex at highway rest stops. Most crucially, she listens to marginalized women’s voices, many of whom resort to sex work to escape domestic abuse or hide their HIV/AIDS symptoms from family. 

By the end of Parikh’s presentation, it became abundantly clear that past methods outlined to achieve SDG 5 can no longer effectively translate into today’s lived realities. Rather, we must actively question research norms, challenge those in power, and open seats at the table for unheard voices.