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Expert Q&A

Using data to end gender disparities in health: Q&A with Joan Sara Thomas

Joan Sara Thomas joined Vital Strategies in 2015 and has been part of the Data for Health Initiative since its inception. In addition to her work as a technical advisor for the Global Grants Program and Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Program, she recently took on the role of Gender Equity Focal Point for the Data for Health initiative. She has over 15 years of public health experience and has worked in countries across North and Central America, the Middle East, and Asia.

How do you define gender equity and its influence on public health?

It is a very important dimension of public health because gender plays an inextricably significant role in determining an individual’s health outcomes. The societal norms around gender associated biases and inequalities can all lead to disparities in health.


Consider a society that believes that showing vulnerability is “weak” and “unmasculine.” This gender norm might discourage men from seeking mental health services, which would result in underdiagnosis and untreated mental health conditions, thereby masking very real health needs of men. Or consider a society where gender norms condone violence against women and girls. This often results in higher rates of gender-based violence and the consequences would be negative health outcomes for women and girls.


Public health systems must include specific measures to eliminate gender inequities in health delivery to positively impact health outcomes. To ensure that everyone is protected by an equitable and effective public health system, we must count everyone, of every gender, by creating a foundational gender dimension in our public health systems.

How can data be used to work toward ending gender disparities in health?

Data is powerful! High-quality and complete data holds the power, when strategically used, to improve the well-being of individuals, communities, nations and the world. The reality is that a data point or statistic is just the starting point to recognizing and addressing gender discrimination.


Take for instance this statistic: 1 in 3 women, some 736 million, have experienced gender-based violence in their lifetime. This statistic indicates the “what” and the “who” of the challenge. We need to take this cold, hard data point and humanize it. What is missing is the context around the “why.” By applying a gender lens to the analysis and use of this data, we can unveil the “why,” which helps us strategically act to improve the lives of individuals in a targeted manner. It is also critical to acknowledge the importance of data in measuring progress toward eliminating gender discrimination.


Data cuts across the whole cycle of identifying the problem, understanding the context, developing programs and policies, and measuring and evaluating impact. It is really an iterative process all anchored upon data.


As someone I respect often says: “Data is knowledge and knowledge is power.”

What work is the Data for Health initiative doing to promote gender equity?

Applying an equity perspective to all our work at Vital Strategies is an organizational priority and is reflected in our global vision: “a world where everyone is protected by equitable and effective public health systems.” Gender equity is a critical component to achieving this, and Vital Strategies is working to pursue it through initiatives across the globe. The Data for Health Initiative, launched in 2015, is one of the larger programs at Vital Strategies. Over the past eight years, the Data for Health initiative has been working to support governments around the world to strengthen the quality of their data and turn it into action and impact that improves the health of their people. Without high-quality data, policymakers lack a clear picture of demographic trends or causes of death and disease in their countries, hampering decision-making about how to direct limited resources.


The four Data for Health programs at Vital Strategies—Cancer Registries, Civil Registration and Vital Statistics (CRVS), Data Impact and the Global Grants Program—have all pushed the needle forward on advancing gender equity. For instance, in Brazil and India, the CRVS program has supported governments to analyze and use forensic data to find unreported and previously hidden cases of gender-based violence. The Data Impact program has supported many countries in turning data into actionable policy; in Senegal, for example, we worked to develop a gender equity indicator framework for the Ministry of Health to track these important dimensions of health care provision.


Through the Global Grants Program, Data for Health provided resources to support the development of an information system with individual tracking to fight child malnutrition in Ecuador, underscoring the critical link of women’s access to resources and work, and the well-being of their children.


Our Cancer Registries Program has supported efforts in Tanzania, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, among other countries, to shine a light on the importance of functioning population-based cancer registries. Breast cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer mortality worldwide and is the most common type of cancer among women. Functioning and reliable population-based cancer registries are gateways to assessment of the burden of cancer, its distribution among population groups, and monitoring and evaluating progress made by prevention and treatment programs.

Why did you choose to pursue public health?

Growing up, I never lived in one place for too long. I made my home in 12 cities across 10 countries around the world. All of this, I have come to realize, greatly shaped how I see and interact with people, and played a significant part in forming my career path. I saw firsthand the complexities, inequalities and inequities stemming from poverty and socioeconomic differences. Yet, through all these varied experiences, I remember often being surprised not by the differences but the similarities we all share.


It was this growing understanding of our commonalities and universal needs that drew me to seek a career anchored in basic human rights and social protections. As this experience began to take root and evolve within me, my passion for health, as one of our fundamental rights and one of life’s great unifiers, also took seed and drew me to pursue education in public health and development.

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About the Data for Health Initiative

The Data for Health Initiative is a global effort supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies. It provides technical assistance and grants to governments in  countries worldwide to improve public health data systems including civil registration and vital statistics systems; cancer registries; and data-driven policymaking and decision-making processes. Vital Strategies serves as an implementing partner.

About Vital Strategies

Vital Strategies believes every person should be protected by an equitable and effective public health system. We partner with governments, communities and organizations around the world to reimagine public health so that health is supported in all the places we live, work and play. The result is millions of people living longer, healthier lives.

To learn more visit or follow us @VitalStrat.