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Women, Health and Development

By Menyanga Abu

From the dawn of human history, women have been at the heart of human development. The mothers/women are the first social support mechanism we all experienced. They are our first teachers and our first health care providers from the day we are born, to the time we are  able to say ABCD or before we come to know that there is a father. Women are responsible for ensuring that the chain of life remains unbroken.

From the above assertion, robust investments in women well-being would definitely accelerate positive health behaviour and development in any human setting. Despite the above facts, however, many women are denied some essential health care services throughout the world even as their lower social and economic status increases specific biological vulnerabilities. The reproductive role of the women in addition to the above factors imposes particular burden and risk on them for much of their lives. Women as mothers  are the frontline providers of care within the family and the key to human development. As such their health has strong impact on that of the children they bear and raise. This intergenerational link has made it clear that improving the health of the women is the surest way of improving the health of the children and that of the family as a whole. Women’s economic activities are linked with their improved health status. By improving the health of women, we are indirectly improving the health and economic development of the world because women are the primary care givers in the family. Their knowledge and experience in maintaining, protecting and promoting good health for their family and themselves is age long activities.

Though women are most times considered  the weaker sex, they are however courageous and have been standing on their feet facing many situations of crisis  where their survival and that of their children are in danger. They always find solutions to scarcities of essential commodities like water and food during natural disasters, civil unrest and wars. Women whose works are primarily considered to be in the home – living room, kitchen and the other room – are now taking centre stage in development activities the world over. They are involved in disease prevention and intervention prgrammes by forming non-governmental and humanitarian organizations. Women are the prime movers of bring back our girls kidnapped by boko haram from a school in Chibok, a town in north-eastern Nigeria, Borno state as witnessed in recent time.

It is important to note that behind women’s marginalization and vulnerability lies their immense strength which must be built upon for future generational development. There are some instances or situations where government services such as health services and the socio-economic support system fail women’s needs, but they – women- in their wisdom come together to form their own supportive networks to promote health and socio-economic development. Most times, women show great ingenuity in the defense of their right to health and well being. They treat both health and diseases with a touch of realism, pragmatism and practicality.

Mothers generally represent the vulnerable group in need of health interventions, but they have the least access to quality health services due to physical, socio-economic and cultural barriers. The health of women as mentioned before has impact on the children they bear and raise, for that reason, the social cost of maternal mortality are enormous and they fall harshly on women’s traditional role of mother and on the children under care. According to Oratai Rauyajin and Bencha, a child’s life without a father is hard without direction, but without a mother, the situation is even worse – the same as a sinking boat or broken fairy. The impact of maternal mortality on the individual, the family and the society at large is like a pebble dropped into a pond where the ripples of actions and reactions reach out to all shores. In the society where there is no adequate mechanism to manage or absorb the cost and most importantly to care for the children involved, each person’s and society’s quality of life will definitely decline including their health, livelihoods and the nation’s development prospects.

Women are the invisible agents of change and development. Today, we are talking of sustainable development goals (SDGs), women, more than ever before, should be at the forefront and centre of all actionable strategies for the achievement of these goals. Sustainable development is a progress that meets the current needs of the population without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs. The complexity of sustainability according to Mireille Didier, suggests an equation with three essential components: (1) wise use of natural resources and ecosystem plus (2) equitable development strategies plus (3) population policies and family planning services is equal to sustainability of natural system and socio-economic productivity. If any of the three is missing, the chances of achieving sustainable development will be threatened. Women’s roles – productive and reproductive – in these three components on daily basis are essential to the success of sustainable development. It is a fact that the interaction of women with the natural resources – soil, water, forest – upon which family livelihood depends, their roles in family sanitation and waste disposal and their contribution to natural resource management far exceed those of men in the non-commercial sector.

Women in Nigeria ,are involved in food production and fuel gathering – firewood – for cooking especially in the rural communities. Without control over women’s health and fertility, they will not be able to fully participate in developmental activities. Allowing population growth rate to overtake economic growth and productivity will certainly overstress government services as well as soaring unemployment and overexploiting the natural systems. Family planning is an important element of development, social justice, well-being and human and natural resources.

All the factors mentioned above, various stakeholders and actors are essential for the success of the sustainable development programme. Women as productive and change agents must be empowered as equal partners. The empowerment I mean here is to recognize the value of women’s work as well as their right to, and the needs for quality health care services and other support services. The ability of women to protect themselves from ill-health is influenced by number of factors ranging from (a) psychological, cultural and legal barriers to women decision making or independent actions (b) the relative lack of economic alternatives  (c) dependence on men’s support. These factors should be taken into consideration in the designing of sustainable development programmes. Taking a clue from women’s positive experiences and development partners with up-to-date information and essential supporst, women will no doubt create that enabling environment for sustainable development that will improve their health and that of the world.

Women should be encouraged to come together to form their own supportive networks for universal health coverage towards achieving measurable impact in SDGs. Focusing on gender sensitive health interventions will go a long way in improving women’s health. Concerns for women’s health need a shift or a change from the normal focus on maternal and child health to the broader framework of sexual and reproductive health and to encompass the concept of women health which is founded on a life course approach. The concept should incorporate health challenges that affect women beyond their reproductive years and those that they share with men. There is the need for gender transformation – not sex change – policies to enable women integrate their social, biological, occupational roles and functions to their full capacity so that the healthy, valued, enabled and empowered women can make substantial contributions to sustainable development agenda. Poor women typically receive health care services from the most disenfranchised member of the health system, leading to ill health and perpetuation of inequality among population group. This cycle must be broken to improve the well-being of women.

Another area of concern in women development is the issue of sexual harassment which can be considered as a persistent form of violence against women that are rooted in gender inequality. In most cases, women that are sexually assaulted/harassed don’t report because of how they are treated when they do and in some cases if they report, they are not always believed. There is also the fear of societal sigmitisaton.This explains why some of them bury these memories for years and decays without sharing with the public because reports made to law enforcement agents need to be talked about over and over reliving what happened.  Women, especially young girls feel stigmatized and these memories could linger for long or throughout their lifetime. We may need to establish National Sexual Assault Agency. (NSAA) to educate the women on sexual harassment and help curb the act

Other issue bothering on women health is the female circumcision which internationally is recognized as violation of human rights of girls and women. This practice constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women due to the severe health consequences, pains and risks involved.

One of the key factors in women’s development is education, because women that have access to education are better able to enhance not only their own health but also that of the family and the community at large. They are better informed on nutritional needs, on the kind of local food they should use and how to cook them, better able to reject practices that imperil their health, better equipped to make right decisions about their children and family and better able to play active role in improving the community in which they live

Women’s ingenuity in ensuring good health for themselves and their families in the face of many odds marks them out as a leading force for development and peace in the world. Any strategy put in place to improve women’s well-being is inseparable from improvement in their socio-economic status.

Invest in women well-being, develop the world!

Menyanga Abu is an Abuja-based

Health System and Development Consultant


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