‘Se-e-v-e-n y-e-a-r-s?’, my classmate back in secondary school yelled with eyes wide open (and hands akimbo) when she heard me express interest in pursuing a career in medicine. ‘How old will you be? When will you marry, have children? Men don’t marry doctors oh, because they are too busy. Please choose another thing.’ Actually, I was on the verge of choosing another ‘thing’ but I guess my placenta was buried somewhere related to the medical profession, as the old cultural myth made us believe.
On becoming a medical doctor and still having a number of suitors, I asked one of them why he wanted to marry a doctor despite society’s perception of how busy they can be with less time for family. He said,
“our mothers who had no medical training were the health managers in the family, then imagine a doctor as wife and mother. I wonder how my mom knew what combination of herbs or drugs to give but astonishingly, we turned out well thereby saving our fathers some bills. With you as my wife, I am sure all our family health issues are sorted and will save me some expenses. Imagine how proud I will be when introducing my wife as Dr. Mrs., na biscuit?”
This made me understand that people actually realise the vital role women play in healthcare delivery. Then why are their own health issues, safety, and opinions minimized?
The feminist movement provides a level ground for women empowerment and strongly advocates for gender equality and respect of women’s rights which intersects, in many ways, with health care. Respect for women’s rights enables them to be healthy, safe and powerful to contribute economically and their voices are amplified to partake in decision making. Ironically, in strategizing to attain universal health care coverage (UHC) which currently is the vision for every health system especially in developing countries, the feminist approach is not considered a useful tool. Feminizing health care entails having the role of women and their right to health being recognised by involving her in vital decision-making processes, providing opportunities for her to exercise full responsibility and paying attention to issues that affect women’s health.
Below are 4 reasons why the feminist approach could help in achieving UHC:
Women’s health: Women represent slightly over 50% of Africa’s human capital. Investing in their health would translate to a socioeconomically profitable outcome and respect for their right to good health. However, this is not the case as most health systems fail to provide services that particularly address women’s health issues. This has resulted in African women accounting for more than half of women’s deaths worldwide. Why should a woman die while giving life during pregnancy or delivery?
Poor health drives the vicious cycle of women’s disempowerment and poverty, acting as a cause and symptom. In discussing UHC, why is such an approach which has the potential to fund, save huge expenses and contribute positively being minimised? Imagine that more than half of Africa’s population had access to the health services they need, we will be half-way progressive in attaining UHC.
Women in healthcare leadership: The World Health Organisation has highlighted that the health and social workforce comprises almost half of the investment required for attaining sustainable development goals and UHC; a workforce that is young and predominantly female. Women make up about 70% of the global health workforce yet, half of their contribution to global health is unpaid. Shockingly, females make up just a minimal percentage of health leaders in Africa.
For example, in Cameroon, there has never been a female minister of health. How come the majority of those who need specific care and spend a greater part of their lives serving others are the least represented on the decision-making table? Feminising healthcare entails that women’s rights to be educated and heard be respected and leadership-diversified in order to make health systems resilient and responsive. Confidently, women can also propose solutions that improve working conditions and the general well-being of society.
Economic justice; With more women empowered and having equal access to decent work and fair wages, it leverages on their ability to afford health care and not let the responsibility lie just on the male counterparts. Working in a rural area as a medical doctor, there are instances when my salary is used as collateral while waiting for fathers or husbands to come pay bills at the hospital.
Most times, women have to delay or even forego preventive or curative care of themselves or their children due to the inability to independently fund health. Economically empowered women can partake in the health expenses of the family, allow them to access the maximum standard of health care, as well as influence their self-esteem and that of their families. Remember my suitor who could not wait to show me off as his doctor bride.
Equitable decision-making power; ‘Doctor, only my husband can decide. Let’s wait for him.’ This statement kept me torn between saving ‘patient’s life first’ and getting the patient’s consent which laid on the shoulders of this 5-year-old boy’s father. His life drew closer to the finish line if the proposed action awaiting father’s approval was not taken.
The promptness of the intervention was sacrificed on the altar of patriarchy as evidenced by the fact that all modalities were explained to the mother who was educated enough, yet she failed to exercise the power of her 50% shares in the genetic makeup of the child. If empowered women with adequate knowledge have equal rights to make decisions, she can make informed choices for herself, spouse, children, and family.
In conclusion, to achieve universal health coverage by 2030 in Africa, the feminist movement is a tool that, if better understood, can be used as a springboard to realisation. It allows us to refine and exploit our more abundant human capital, rather than wrongly consider it a challenge to men. Do you want to ask if I got married to that suitor? No, we didn’t for reasons which if to be disclosed, every man has to first be a #HeForShe
– Dr. Ngwashi Christabel
Ngwashi Christabel is a medical Doctor, health writer, and public health advocate. She writes on subjects that influence social determinants of healthcare and is the founder of MoreThanJustAnMD Initiative which empowers people with knowledge to make informed health choices. She has won a number of awards and shared stages with global leaders on the invitation of the World Bank to discuss developmental issues. She has the vision to build effective health systems whereby preventive, community and patient-centered care is prioritized