How does African women’s health compare to women’s health around the world?
Today, in the 21st century (where our lives are online - from shopping, to news, to social media to entertainment, even enjoying free spins) the life expectancy of women in many countries around the world has reached 80 years and beyond.
In Africa, however, according to the World Health Organization, a woman’s life expectancy is just 54 years. Another harsh fact is that of the many maternal deaths that still occur even today, somewhere in the region of half a million, the large majority of them occur on the African continent and in sub-Saharan Africa. We should be asking why this is the case.
There are a number of reasons for this situation, but one of the main reasons must include poverty and the lack of economic power of women in some African cultures resulting in lack of power in the home and in relationships concerning their bodies and reproductive lives.
This far exceeds the matter of being able to play for some . Gender plays a big part in women’s marginalization and the many ways in which they experience discrimination in their daily lives. All these things have a detrimental effect on women both physically and emotionally and of course adversely affect their ability to be economically independent.
International Women’s Day
In March, International Women’s Day was celebrated at the United Nations. At this event, women were venerated for the important role they play in society, but at the same time, a light was shone on areas where there is much work still to be done to improve the lives of women.
One main focus is on gender and how to tackle the issues concerning health, and particularly reproductive health in Africa. Stamping out gender-based violence and discrimination as well as dealing with the issue of female ‘circumcision’ and decreasing the numbers of maternal deaths. These are important issues that must be tackled as part of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.
Improving maternal health is one of the biggest health challenges on the African continent. Reaching the set target of a 75% reduction in the maternal mortality rate is unlikely without real changes in health and education being put in place. Sadly, the majority of maternal deaths could be avoided by just improving the health of women.
Many deaths could be prevented by providing the necessary obstetric care needed. The lack of this service leads to all kinds of complications like high blood pressure, unsafe abortions, bleeding and other problems during labor.
The situation of young girls and pregnancy on the African continent is a critical one. Many of these very young women experience real complications, and trauma, often resulting in death, at a time when they themselves are still physically and emotionally underdeveloped. This issue needs to be made a top priority.
So, what do the numbers say?
Even though according to the report published by the United Nations concerning trends in Maternal Mortality in sub-Saharan Africa did show a decline between the years 1990 – 2010 the numbers are still not at an acceptable level. In Europe, one in 2900 women will die in childbirth in contrast to one in 42 African women.
There are positive initiatives taking place. CARMMA – the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa was launched in partnership with the African Union and is providing a variety of programs aimed at improving maternal health for the ordinary woman on the ground. Still, much more needs to be done to make health care accessible to more women.
Other health issues concerning women in Africa are also discouraging in their outlook. A report by the World Health Organization and presented at the International Women’s Day event entitled “Addressing the Challenges of Women ‘s Health in Africa” points out that the number of African women developing cervical cancer is twice that of the rest of the world. The other major issue is that of genital mutilation that must be tackled if the lives of all young girls between the ages of 4 and 12 can be saved from this cruel ritual.
Education and better literacy skills, together with improving women’s economic status will help to improve women’s overall health and wellbeing. Many long-standing cultural norms will also need to be addressed in order to improve the lives of girls and women.
There needs to be a real move towards debating these cultural norms, the political will to do so, and more importantly real investment in health programs directed at women all across Africa.
The reason that progress has been slow in coming is that those in charge and policymakers have not seen the health and socio-economic position of women as a priority. If the situation and problems are not tackled, women will continue to be in a vulnerable place in society and society, and Africa, will not benefit from the contribution that women can make.
Policymakers need to ensure that enough resources are put into those areas that most benefit women and girls, like education and health. Access to health care must be ensured across the board for all women and girls across the African continent.
Taking a multi-faceted approach which will tackle all areas - medical, socio-cultural and economic factors. Only in this way can real changes take place that will potentially improve the lives of women and girls in Africa.
The time is now.