For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Research Reflections for International Women's Day: Women's Political Empowerment and Health in Latin America

Posted on March 8, 2018
Picture of women with a Bolsa Familia card

By Philipp Hessel PhD, MSc, MA 

Women’s involvement in politics can have sizeable and positive effects on health, stressing the need for women's leadership in policymaking and the design of health strategies.

Ensuring women’s full and effective participation at all levels of decision-making and sectors of society is one of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and increasingly a target of public policies and approaches, such as microcredit programs that see the benefits of women's financial freedom for broader communities. Gender equality is a fundamental human right, but beyond being the “right thing to do” morally, empowering women and girls is also the “right thing to do” for societies. Women’s active and equitable participation in political arenas, labor forces, and education grows economies, reduces poverty and household income inequality, and improves health outcomes. A greater involvement of women in political decision-making is also linked to larger investments in education, healthcare and other social programs.

International Women’s Day, held annually on March 8, is a global celebration of women’s social, economic, cultural and political advancement. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the past decades have been marked by significant achievements for gender equality. The percentage of women employed in the formal sectors has reached 54 percent, a jump from 36 percent in 1980, but still lagging behind the 80 percent participation of men. In the six countries of LAC with the largest economies, the percentage of women aged 25-34 with a college degree now exceeds men in the same age group. However, progress remains to be seen in terms of balanced representation across sectors, removal of direct and indirect barriers to equality, and combating discrimination. Women's empowerment should be a top priority of all governments worldwide. 

One of the studies of the Salud Urbana en América Latina (SALURBAL) project, a multi-country collaboration of drivers of urban health in Latin America, hopes to shed light onto the health benefits of women’s empowerment through research on Brazil. With colleagues from Universidad de Los Andes and other collaborators, we set out to assess the effects of women’s political empowerment on infant mortality in Brazil. Brazil makes for an interesting backdrop for this research as it has enjoyed high rates of economic growth and reductions in infant mortality, alongside large expansions in access to healthcare and conditional cash transfer programs to fight poverty. During the same time, the percentage of female candidates in federal elections at the municipality has nearly doubled from 16 to 30 percent, although the percentage of female candidates elected only rose slightly from 10 to 12 percent. Using data from more than 5,000 Brazilian municipalities between 2000-2016, we found that larger increases in the percentage of female candidates (for both federal and municipal elections) led to significant and sizeable reductions in infant mortality.

On average, a 1 percent increase in the share of female electoral candidates led to a reduction of infant mortality of 0.8 percent and a reduction of mortality among women by 0.13 percent.

Furthermore, we are also able to show that increases in the share of female candidates had positive effects on the percentage of the population covered by universal primary care (Programa Saúde da Família), as well as coverage rates of the national conditional cash transfer program (Bolsa Família). Women’s influence promoting these two programs is likely a mechanism for how women’s political empowerment translates into improvements to population health outcomes. 

Women’s involvement in politics can have sizeable and positive effects on health, stressing the need for women's leadership in policymaking and the design of health strategies. Doing so can reduce larger societal inequalities and enhance the delivery of essential programs. 


This post was written by Philipp Hessel of Universidade de Los Andes (Colombia) as a guest contribution to Cities, Sectors, and Health, run by the SALURBAL Project. To contact the blog or learn more about the SALURBAL project email

Posted in Social Inclusion, Governance, Public Policies, localnews