Established in 1997, the Interagency Gender Working Group (IGWG) draws members from USAID and many other organizations working on reproductive health programs and policies. The overall mission of IGWG is to promote gender equity within population and health programs in the context of sustainable development and human rights. The IGWG currently has approximately 70 active members and a listserv with 200 participants. Membership is open to all interested individuals.

It is critical to integrate gender issues into population, health and nutrition programs (PHN), according to Avni. Issues of gender are important to the entire development process because of the different roles men and women play in societies throughout the world. These differences are particularly apparent in the areas of health and family planning. PHN programs must be sensitive to issues of access to services, levels of participation in decision making and different levels of education. The IGWG is working to highlight and promote the responsibility of health professionals to uphold and advance the rights of both men and women to make decisions about reproduction.

One of the overriding difficulties in promoting a gender perspective is arriving at a common definition and understanding of the term. Academic studies of gender have arrived at two generally accepted statements about gender. The first is that gender refers to the socially constructed roles and responsibilities that are assigned to individuals based on their biological sex. The second is that gender roles are learned through socialization so that they vary within countries and across cultures, changing over time. However, as Ms. Avni pointed out, it is difficult to translate these academic definitions into activities in the field of population, health and nutrition. In her words, this is "a concept in search of a methodology."

The IGWG is working to develop just such a methodology by examining projects with an explicit aim at addressing gender, assessing the success of those projects and using that data to develop and strengthen gender approaches. The group has pursued these goals through five perspectives or approaches to incorporating gender: taking into consideration power differences between men and women; changing the power dynamics between men and women; involving men and women in reproductive health issues and programs; understanding the cultural roles of sexual and reproductive health behavior; and giving women a voice. Ms. Avni briefly described individual projects working to incorporate each of these perspectives and the accomplishments and challenges of each. In general, the IGWG has identified several challenges to all programs working to incorporate gender: gender is difficult to operationalize, information and methods are inadequate, and gender dynamics are slow to change and difficult to measure. All of these challenges make it hard to prove an impact for gender focused work. Despite these challenges, the group has formulated several recommendations. Among these are: explicitly incorporating gender into the design, monitoring, and evaluation of projects; considering PHN activities within a larger context to identify opportunities to link with activities in other sectors; and finally measuring and documenting the impact of gender sensitive approaches.