The empowerment of women and girls in low and middle-income countries has long been recognized as a cornerstone of sustainable development. Yet despite billions in foreign aid spent on development projects annually, the international community is falling short on meeting the sustainable development goal (SDG) to achieve gender equality. The gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have provided further setbacks for women. However, incorporating mechanisms aimed at increasing women’s empowerment into existing and future development projects is one potential solution to close the gender gap. Indeed, interdependencies of the SDGs can encourage positive spillovers or downstream effects; efforts targeted at one SDG can also impact another. Following this assumption, it is possible for interventions aimed at SDG 3 (ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) to, for example, impact SDG 5 (achieve gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls). My dissertation project leverages these interdependencies and exploits an external health intervention targeted at women and girls to study its downstream effect on women’s empowerment.

Identifying mechanisms in attitude and behavioral shifts such as women’s empowerment, is difficult in social science research without relying on a randomized controlled trial (RCT). The RCT study design allows researchers to quantify the effects of an intervention by comparing outcomes between the treatment and control groups. My dissertation research builds on a previously conducted health intervention RCT that targeted women and girls in Kenya led by Dr. Huchko and the Center for Global Reproductive Health. In 2021, I will work with the Center for Global Reproductive Health to administer a follow-up survey measuring women’s empowerment in communities in rural Western Kenya, some of which participated in a 2016 RCT for cervical cancer screening (treatment group) and some that did not (control group). By comparing outcomes between these treatment and control groups on various dimensions of women’s empowerment, this research will identify the mechanisms leading to women’s empowerment, differentiate the impact on various dimensions of empowerment, and reveal which, if any, of these dimensions of empowerment have tempered the gendered effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although the aim of the 2016 study was to increase the uptake of cervical cancer screening and treatment, qualitative interviews conducted after the RCT in Kenya revealed that women who had participated in the study reported feeling empowered. This suggests that women’s empowerment may have been a downstream effect from the original intervention. This is consistent with the literature on women’s empowerment, highlighting the impact of sexual and reproductive health knowledge on empowerment.

Through the survey data collected from these women, this project seeks to a) identify mechanisms that increase women’s empowerment, b) quantify their impact on various dimensions of empowerment; and c) assess their resiliency in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With an increased understanding of these mechanisms for promoting women’s empowerment, future development projects and health interventions can incorporate them and target multiple sustainable development goals simultaneously. Such widespread practices could narrow the gender gap, a crucial step to combat the widening disparities resulting from the gendered impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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