Special Issue on Women’s Health, Gender, and Empowerment


Empowerment is widely acknowledged as a process by which those who have been disempowered are able to increase their self-efficacy, make life-enhancing decisions, and obtain control over resources [123]. In addition, empowerment is multi-dimensional – a woman may be empowered in one dimension or sphere (such as financial) but not in another (such as in sexual and reproductive decision-making). Most countries now recognize the importance for girls and women to become more empowered, both as a goal in itself, as well as to achieve a more gender equitable society [4]. More recently, researchers have been assessing the contexts and mechanisms by which empowerment directly or indirectly affects various aspects of women’s health [567]. A better understanding of the situations where greater empowerment is associated with improved health outcomes can assist policymakers in planning and prioritizing their investments.

Although associations between women’s empowerment and some aspects of their health, such as fertility and contraception, have been studied fairly extensively and seem to be mostly positive [689], the relationship between women’s empowerment and pregnancy or childbirth, including abortion, has not received sufficient attention. Moreover, empowerment measures still need to be critically evaluated [1011] and to encompass a range of potential empowerment domains – psychological, social, political, economic and legal [891213]. The purpose of this special issue in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth is to bring a multidisciplinary lens and varied methodologies to the central question of how women’s empowerment relates to pregnancy and childbirth. By highlighting women’s health concerns, rights, and empowerment, this special issue aims to catalyze societal-level changes that will yield sustainable improvements in health and well-being for women on a global scale.

This special issue is sponsored by the Women’s Health, Gender, and Empowerment Center of Expertise (COE), a part of the University of California Global Health Institute. The COE is comprised of faculty, staff and students from across the campuses of the University of California, along with practitioners and international partners. The COE promotes research, education, and community engagement at the intersection of health and empowerment in the US and globally. Collectively, it represents a wide variety of disciplines and approaches to improving women’s health and empowerment.

In the fall of 2015, the COE put out an open call for long abstracts from multiple disciplines on the role of women’s empowerment on pregnancy and childbirth. We received a total of 52 submissions, which were evaluated by all managing editors using several criteria, including strength of the empowerment construct, methodology, clarity, significance, innovation, and suitability for the supplement. The top 16 submissions were invited to submit full papers. All selected articles included a construct that is conceptualized as women’s empowerment, defined broadly. To further develop and share ideas concerning the articles for this issue, the COE conducted a one-day research workshop, which was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, Clinical and Translational Science Institute (NIH NCATS UCLA CTSI Grant Number UL1TR000124). Members of the COE submitting full papers had the opportunity to give an oral presentation presenting their study’s aims and methods, receive feedback and guidance on how to improve their study’s conceptualization, hear about other scholars’ work for this special issue, and network with others interested in these topics. A total of 12 papers successfully went through peer review and were accepted for this special issue [14].

The 12 studies included in this special issue apply methodologies from different disciplines – anthropology, sociology, law, demography, and public health – to provide empirical data on an aspect of women’s empowerment during a critical period of the reproductive life-course. The authors were also asked to discuss how their research results could affect future policies and programs. We have grouped the articles into three main subject areas, namely (1) fertility, family planning, and abortion; (2) antenatal care, delivery, and the perinatal period; and (3) maternal health and mortality.


Ndola Prata
Paula Tavrow
Ushma Upadhyay
Publication date: 
November 8, 2017
Publication type: 
Journal Article