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Policy foundations for transformation: a gender analysis of adolescent health policy documents in South Africa

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the United Nations Global Strategy (2016–30) emphasize that all women, children and adolescents ‘survive, thrive and transform’. A key element of this global policy framework is that gender equality is a stand-alone goal as well as a cross-cutting priority. Gender inequality and intersecting social and structural determinants shape health systems, including the content of policy documents, with implications for implementation. This article applies a gender lens to policy documents by national government bodies that have mandates on adolescent health in South Africa. Data were 15 policy documents, authored between 2003 and 2018, by multiple actors. The content analysis was guided by key lines of enquiry, and policy documents were classified along the continuum of gender blind to gender transformative. Only three policy documents defined gender, and if gender was addressed, it was mostly in gender-sensitive ways, at times gender specific, but rarely gender transformative. Building on this, a critical discourse analysis identified what is problematized and what is left unproblematized by actors, identifying the key interrelated dominant and marginalized discourses, as well as the ‘silences’ embedded in policy documents. The discourse analysis revealed that dominant and marginalized discourses reflect how gender is conceptualized as fixed, categorical identities, vs as fluid social processes, with implications for how rights and risks are understood. The discourses substantiate an over-riding focus on adolescent girls, outside of the context of power relations, with minimal attention to boys in terms of their own health or through a gender lens, as well as little consideration of LGBTIQ+ adolescents beyond HIV. Dynamic and complex relationships exist between the South Africa context, actors, content and processes, in shaping both how gender is problematized and how ‘solutions’ are represented in these policies. How gender is conceptualized matters, both for policy analysis and for praxis, and policy documents can be part of foundations for transforming gender and intersecting power relations…

Jacobs, T., George, A., & De Jong, M. (2021). Policy foundations for transformation: a gender analysis of adolescent health policy documents in South Africa. Health Policy and Planning, 36(5), 684-694.

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