Include women in health development and leadership

Azimio la Umoja running mate Martha Karua (2nd-left) during Maendeleo ya Wanawake anniversary celebrations. June 7, 2022. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

We are living in strange and dangerous times. On the one hand, calls for gender equality and inclusion of more women in leadership at all levels are getting louder; on the other, millions of women around the world are being shut off from accessing equal opportunities in education, healthcare, economic growth and political participation.

The Covid-19 pandemic, now in its third year, has rolled back gains for women made over the past couple of decades and made it clear that the impact of crises is never gender-neutral. It is no secret that women, by virtue of being over-represented in the services sector, lower paying jobs and the informal economy, have suffered greater economic losses than men.

In 2020, it was estimated that globally, women lost more than 64 million jobs at a cost of US$800 billion in lost earnings for those working in the formal sector. This monumental figure does not take into account the millions of women working in the informal sector, which employs a majority of women in lower- and middle-income countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, an estimated 74 per cent of women in non-agricultural jobs are in informal employment.

Among the African Union’s aspirations for the continent as outlined in its Agenda 2063 is to build an Africa “whose development is people driven, relying on the potential offered by African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for children.” Its goals include the achievement of a high standard of living, quality of living and wellbeing for all, healthy and nourished citizens and gender equality.

To achieve these goals, however, African countries must adopt a sharp shift in political, health and economic strategy. What we have done in the past – or failed to do – is what has gotten us here, where the rates of maternal mortality (200,000 maternal deaths per year), unmet need for family planning (approximately 25 per cent in East Africa), gender inequality and poverty remain among the highest in the world.

We cannot keep doing what we have done in the past and expect different results. What then must we do to fulfil women’s right to health?

First, we must acknowledge that women’s rights are human rights, and must be protected. We must intentionally pursue achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially those pertaining to poverty, education, gender equality, good health and wellbeing, decent work and economic growth, and reduced inequalities.

We must invest in strengthening our health systems to make them resilient and responsive to the needs of all, especially women and children, who suffer more greatly from the gendered impacts of crises. We must push for universal health access, and in that way health as a right can be achieved.

Research shows that accelerating progress on gender equality could boost African economies by 10 per cent by 2025. Therefore, we must step up our efforts to close the gender gap and dismantle the notion that men are “born leaders”. In addition, we must escalate the need for accountability from leadership at all levels. Our leaders have a responsibility to prioritise our health and general wellbeing at all times.

-Dr Obudho is East Africa Programme Director, WomenLift Health