Why Gender Matters in Kenyan Health Policy #BeyondSex

March 27, 2024

By Christine Ger Ochola with contributions from Ann Waithaka.


Imagine a future where healthcare is not a one-size-fits-all system. A future where policies acknowledge the biological and social realities that shape men’s and women’s social, economic and health aspects differently. This is the essence of the Gendered Health Pathways Project (2021-2024), a research initiative conducted by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) determined to dismantle gender bias in the Kenyan health policy framework, in partnership with Global Health 50/50, United Kingdom, and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), India.

The global health landscape is constantly evolving, and one of the most pressing issues demanding attention is the harsh reality of gendered health inequities. From heart disease to mental health, the way we experience and manage health conditions can differ significantly based on our gender identity. Recognizing this is no longer enough. We need health professionals, researchers, and policymakers to actively address these disparities through strategic initiatives and inclusive policy frameworks.

The 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) serve as a beacon in this endeavor. They provide a roadmap for the global health community to tackle gender inequities head-on. Goals like SDG 3, which focuses on ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, clearly acknowledge the need to address gender disparities in health outcomes. However, despite growing awareness, significant challenges remain. Systemic roadblocks rooted in sex and gender discrimination continue to influence health outcomes across populations.

Before we go any further, let us unpack the crucial distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to the biological and anatomical differences between males and females. Gender, on the other hand, encompasses the roles, behaviors, and expectations that society assigns to men and women. While distinct in definition, these concepts often intertwine to shape individual health experiences.

Sex plays a vital role in clinical and public health practices. It influences everything from disease prevention and diagnosis to treatment and outcomes. For instance, sex hormones impact the body’s response to medications and the susceptibility to certain diseases.

Gender, however, influences access to health care and the quality of care received. Social norms and expectations surrounding masculinity and femininity can create barriers for men and women seeking healthcare. Imagine a woman hesitant to seek help for mental health concerns due to societal stigma, or a man delaying a visit to the doctor because of ingrained masculinity ideas about seeking medical help. These are just a few examples of how gender norms can negatively impact health-seeking behaviors.

The influence of sex and gender on health goes beyond individual experiences. Research consistently shows a “gender gap” in health outcomes. Women, for example, tend to live longer than men, but they also experience higher rates of chronic conditions like autoimmune diseases. Men, on the other hand, may experience higher rates of injuries and accidents due to societal expectations of risk-taking behavior.

Kenya, like many countries around the world, presents a mixed picture when it comes to gender considerations in health policy. While some policies acknowledge and address the unique health needs of women and diverse genders, others fall short. To understand this disparity, APHRC Researchers conducted a research project that examined several Kenyan health policies focusing on critical areas like COVID-19, tuberculosis (TB), HIV/AIDS, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). The researchers explored how these policies address gender and what factors influence their gender responsiveness.

The research was guided by three key questions:

  1. To what extent do these health policies acknowledge and address gender differences in health?
  2. What factors contribute to some policies being more gender-responsive than others?
  3. How can we create future policies that are more inclusive and address the specific health needs of all genders?

A holistic approach was adopted to conduct a thorough analysis of the four selected Kenyan health policies, meticulously examining how they inform gender and whether they addressed health disparities between men and women. Additionally, individuals were directly involved in formulating these policies.

The research findings identified significant barriers to gender participation in policy development. One important issue that emerged clearly was a lack of funding for gender-focused organizations. These organizations, such as gender commissioners, often lack the resources to effectively advocate for gender considerations across different sectors. Which can lead to policies that are “gender-blind” and fail to address the specific needs of women and other marginalized groups.

Furthermore, the under-representation of women in leadership positions within policy-making bodies was identified as another significant barrier.  While women may participate in lower-level committees, their voices are often absent from the final decision-making tables where key policies are shaped.

The research revealed that: while progress has been made, significant strides are still needed. We require health policies that not only acknowledge but actively address the distinct health realities of men and women. By developing gender responsive policies, we can pave the way for better health outcomes for all Kenyans.

In conclusion, achieving gender equality in health policy requires a united front. Policymakers, researchers, and advocates all have significant roles to play in this collective effort. Our study emphasizes the need to integrate gender-responsive approaches into policy development. We may create a path to ground-breaking policies by integrating the significant insights gathered from this research. Such transformative policies have the power to empower individuals and communities, to thrive and reach their full health potential. Let us work together to create a society in which gender no longer determines health outcomes, giving everyone the opportunity to thrive.


Some of the information in this article is based on the findings of the Gendered Health Pathways Project, with invaluable insights from the project team – Dr. Damazo Kadengye, Dr. Sylvia Muyingo, Henry Owoko and Sally Odunga.