Biosecurity or the set of preventive measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases is an area that is receiving increasing attention in the face of rising global health challenges. Historically, vulnerabilities within biosecurity can be ascribed to various factors, such as insufficient infrastructure, lack of public awareness, and inadequate research funding. However, a crucial and often overlooked vulnerability in this space pertains to gender disparities. Specifically, women stand at the forefront of biosecurity vulnerabilities due to socio-cultural, economic, and physiological factors.

At the grassroots level, women in many cultures and societies are primary caregivers, responsible for looking after the sick, nurturing children, and maintaining the well-being of families. This pivotal role places them at an elevated risk of exposure to infectious agents. In many developing countries, women also play a central role in agriculture and animal husbandry. As these are areas intrinsically linked to zoonotic diseases, the chances of women encountering biosecurity threats are compounded.

Socio-cultural norms further contribute to these vulnerabilities. In numerous societies, women do not always have autonomous decision-making power regarding their health. Limited access to education and information in some regions means that women may not always be equipped with the knowledge needed to recognize and mitigate biosecurity risks. Cultural practices, such as traditional birthing methods or certain rituals involving animals, may also expose women disproportionately to infectious agents. Economically, women, especially those in low-resource settings, might lack access to quality healthcare. Gender-based wage disparities and economic dependencies can limit their ability to seek medical attention promptly or afford necessary treatments, thereby potentially exacerbating outbreaks.

From a physiological perspective, certain infectious diseases have a different impact on women than on men. For instance, the Zika virus has severe implications for pregnant women and their unborn children. Moreover, there are diseases for which gender-specific research is lacking, leading to gaps in understanding about how these diseases may uniquely affect women.

Addressing gender disparities in biosecurity is not merely a matter of fairness but also one of effectiveness. As primary caregivers, women are often the first line of defence in detecting and responding to health anomalies in families and communities. By empowering them with knowledge, resources, and tools, we can bolster biosecurity from the ground up. This requires a multi-faceted approach.

First, there needs to be a targeted effort to educate women about biosecurity risks and preventive measures. Tailoring education initiatives to respect and work within cultural norms, while challenging harmful practices, is essential. Second, health infrastructure should be strengthened to be more accessible to women, recognizing their unique needs. This includes reproductive health services, which can play a vital role in managing biosecurity risks related to maternal health.

Third, there needs to be more research into gender-specific biosecurity vulnerabilities. By understanding the unique risks women face, policymakers can design interventions that are more effective and inclusive.
In conclusion, women stand at a critical juncture in the realm of biosecurity. Addressing the gendered vulnerabilities within this sphere is not just an ethical imperative but also a pragmatic one. As we fortify global health systems and strategies, ensuring women are protected, educated, and empowered is foundational to the broader success of biosecurity initiatives.

International Organizations: Recognizing and Responding to Gendered Biosecurity:

International organizations have historically played crucial roles in guiding global agendas, establishing standards, and coordinating responses to pressing challenges. In the context of biosecurity — a domain addressing the potential threats posed by biological agents — there’s an imperative to recognize and address gender-specific concerns, particularly the vulnerabilities and roles of women. Given their positions of influence, international organizations have both the responsibility and capability to make significant strides in this area. Women, by their roles in many societies as primary caregivers, agricultural workers, and healthcare providers, are often on the frontline of biosecurity threats. From interacting closely with sources of zoonotic diseases to caring for sick family members, women frequently find themselves at heightened risks. However, their pivotal positions also mean they are instrumental in early detection, response, and prevention measures related to biosecurity threats.

Despite this central role, women’s unique needs and vulnerabilities are not always adequately addressed in biosecurity strategies. International organizations have the mandate to correct this oversight. The World Health Organization (WHO), for instance, has been pivotal in global health emergencies. By integrating a gender lens into its biosecurity guidelines and recommendations, WHO can ensure that nations account for the specific risks faced by women, thereby bolstering the overall effectiveness of their biosecurity measures. Similarly, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) interacts closely with agricultural sectors across countries. Given that many women are involved in farming and animal husbandry — roles linking directly to zoonotic diseases — FAO can drive policies that ensure women in these sectors are educated about biosecurity risks and equipped with tools to mitigate them.

The role of international organizations isn’t limited to policy guidance alone. They can serve as platforms for research, funding, and advocacy. There is a pressing need for more gender-specific research in the realm of biosecurity. International organizations can prioritize and fund studies that investigate how biosecurity threats differently affect women, leading to evidence-based interventions tailored to their needs. Moreover, these entities can leverage their convening power to bring together experts, policymakers, and community leaders to foster dialogues about women in biosecurity. Workshops, conferences, and collaborative projects can shed light on overlooked challenges and innovative solutions.

Another area of intervention is capacity building. International organizations can develop training programs aimed at women, ensuring they are equipped with the knowledge and skills to navigate biosecurity threats. For instance, training programs can be tailored for female healthcare workers, educating them about specific risks associated with their gender and profession and offering strategies to manage these risks. Furthermore, in the realm of advocacy, international organizations can highlight the stories and experiences of women impacted by biosecurity threats, bringing attention to their challenges and resilience. By amplifying their voices, these entities can push nations to incorporate gender considerations into their biosecurity frameworks.

As the guardians of global standards and best practices, international organizations are strategically positioned to recognize and respond to the interplay between women and biosecurity. Their influence, resources, and networks make them instrumental in ensuring that biosecurity policies and strategies are not just gender-sensitive but also gender-responsive. By placing women at the heart of biosecurity initiatives, these organizations can champion a more holistic, effective, and inclusive approach to safeguarding global health.


Image – World Fish

By Yusha Araf

The author is a Youth For Biosecurity Fellow, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and a Safety and Security Committee Member, iGEM Competition 2023.

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