McCollum R., Taegtmeyer M., Otiso L., Tolhurst R., Mireku M., Martineau T., Karuga R. and Theobald S. (2019) Applying an intersectionality lens to examine health for vulnerable individuals following devolution in Kenya, International Journal for Equity in Health, 2019, 18:24

Power imbalances are a key driver of avoidable, unfair and unjust differences in health. Devolution shifts the balance of power in health systems. Intersectionality approaches can provide a ‘lens’ for analysing how power relations contribute to complex and multiple forms of health advantage and disadvantage. These approaches have not to date been widely used to analyse health systems reforms. While the stated objectives of devolution often include improved equity, efficiency and community participation, past evidence demonstrates that that there is a need to create space and capacity for people to transform existing power relations these within specific contexts.

We carried out a qualitative study between March 2015 and April 2016, involving 269 key informant and in-depth interviews from across the health system in ten counties, 14 focus group discussions with community members in two of these counties and photovoice participatory research with nine young people. We adopted an intersectionality lens to reveal how power relations intersect to produce vulnerabilities for specific groups in specific contexts, and to identify examples of the tacit knowledge about these vulnerabilities held by priority-setting stakeholders, in the wake of the introduction of devolution reforms in Kenya.

Our study identified a range of ways in which longstanding social forces and discriminations limit the power and agency individuals can exercise, but are mediated by their unique circumstances at a given point in their life. These are the social determinants of health, influencing an individual’s exposure to risk of ill health from their living environment, their work, or their social context, including social norms relating to their gender, age, geographical residence or socio-economic status. While a range of policy measures have been introduced to encourage participation by typically ‘unheard voices’, devolution processes have yet to adequately challenge the social norms, and intersecting power relations which contribute to discrimination and marginalisation.

If key actors in devolved decision-making structures are to ensure progress towards universal health coverage, there is need for intersectoral policy action to address social determinants, promote equity and identify ways to challenge and shift power imbalances in priority-setting processes.


This project is funded by the European Union.
This project is funded by the European Union.