Throughout Africa, women have a significant impact on society and the economy. In Sub-Saharan Africa nearly 30 percent of very small, small, and medium-sized enterprises are owned by at least one woman, contributing positively to employment and economic growth in the region.
The World Economic Forum estimates that by empowering women to participate equally in the global economy, nearly $28 trillion in GDP growth could be added to the global economy by 20251. This is just one example of how important women are to society. However, the unfortunate reality is that women face numerous challenges that result in a disparity between their potential and actual impact on our communities.
As we celebrated Youth Day and Youth Month in June 2021, we must acknowledge the role that young women will play in our future society, while also recognising the numerous challenges and obstacles they have to overcome to achieve their full potential. It is a must, therefore, to identify and address the systemic and institutional barriers that prevent women from enjoying equal opportunities in society.
Healthcare as a systemic and institutional barrier
Women in Africa bear a disproportionately high share of the global burden of disease and death, particularly as it relates to maternal morbidity and mortality, with up to a 70-fold increased lifetime risk of dying during childbirth, compared to women in Europe2 (WHO, 2021).
Further, women in Africa account for more than half of deaths of women worldwide due to communicable diseases, and nutritional deficiencies2. Illness is both a cause and an effect of women’s disempowerment, compounding the cycle of disempowerment and poverty among African women.
The high rates of intimate partner violence and sexual assault that are experienced by women across the continent can be directly attributed to the patriarchy in our society and has a significant impact on women’s social and health statuses, resulting in reduced socio-economic achievement, substantial physical injury, and inestimable emotional and psychological harm.
Unfortunately, for many women, the systemic barriers preventing access to healthcare aggravate poor social circumstances, and perpetuate the vicious cycle of ill health, poor access to education, increased maternal morbidity, and a heavy socio-economic burden.
The urban-rural inequities further exacerbate disparities in access, cementing the institutional barriers that hinder the progress to equality for many women. Ensuring education, access and choice in healthcare is essential for allowing women equal opportunities in society.
Unlocking women’s potential
African women have been the pillar of strength in families and communities, and therefore, the need to address their healthcare barriers is urgent and requires coordinated multisectoral action.
We must leverage novel ideas and affordable technology in order to meet the healthcare needs of all women, whether it is access to health education, access to safe and efficient healthcare facilities, or access to appropriate services and therapies that address the physical and mental wellbeing of women and their families.
Improving the health of women translates directly into greater productivity and will generate significant economic gains. By virtue of women not only being active in the workforce, but also being caregivers, and healthcare decision-makers in the family, ensuring their health translates into a healthy labour force, and a healthy nation.
By addressing the root challenges such as maternal health, safe and effective contraception, and affordable oncology treatments, women can have a healthier future and face fewer obstacles that limit their potential.
In order to fundamentally reduce poverty, inequality, and advance the rights of women and girls, we must guarantee equal access to healthcare services, and ensure that those services respond to the specific needs of women. There must also be extended coverage of existing programs through investment and innovation to prevent life-changing events that reduce life expectancy, or that diminish or even derail lifetime achievement.
The time has come to adopt a multi-sectoral approach in dealing with women’s health issues, advocating for improved availability, accessibility and affordability of healthcare services that respond to the specific needs of women to ensure a lifetime of health and wellbeing.
Organon South Africa is a global healthcare company that delivers impactful medicines and solutions for a healthier every day. For more information, visit their LinkedIn page here.
Dr Abofele Khoele is the Managing Director, Organon South Africa.
1. Abney, D. González Laya, A. This is why women must play a greater role in the global economy. [Online]. World Economic Forum; Global, 24 January 2018.
2. WHO. (2021, June 15). Rethinking women’s health. Retrieved from Report of the Commission on Women’s Health in the African Region.