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Advancing gender equality in accessing healthcare

By Chukwuma Muanya and Charles Ozioma
25 November 2021   |   4:05 am
Experts have called for accelerated progress in gender equality, especially empowering women in accessing life-saving medical interventions like cervical cancer vaccine-Human Papilloma Virus Vaccine (HPV).

•Conference seeks more roles for women towards sustainable development
•Says Nigeria must vaccinate 90% of girls against cancer-causing human papilloma virus before age of 15

Experts have called for accelerated progress in gender equality, especially empowering women in accessing life-saving medical interventions like cervical cancer vaccine-Human Papilloma Virus Vaccine (HPV).

The experts, at the two-day Nigeria Health Watch’s 2021 Future of Health Conference, held virtually, called for more roles for women towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The theme, “Breaking Glass Ceilings”, set the tone for what was an animated discourse on gender equality issues that are often overlooked or even evaded.

The discussions were focused on elevating the importance of better quality women’s healthcare, fostering dialogue around understanding the barriers that prevent women from accessing quality healthcare, and advocating for women to be better represented at the policy-making level.

Managing Director, Nigeria Health Watch, Mrs. Vivianne Ihekweazu, who set the tone for the discussions, said, “If anything, COVID-19 has heightened the need for accelerated progress in gender equality, especially with regards to women’s health.”

Ihekweazu warned that sustainable development could not be achieved without gender equality and that progress has been slow in the healthcare sector. She also noted a worrisome state of maternal global deaths.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), gender inequality and gender bias results in irregular access to health care, education and other basic needs for women and girls. This influences their health-seeking behaviour and wellbeing, negatively impacting their health outcomes.

Discussions on Day Two were divided into three panel sessions: ‘Elevating the Importance of Quality Women’s Health’, ‘Men as Change Agents’, and ‘The Girl Child Dividend’, a World Bank-supported panel on the role of the healthy productive adolescent girl in generating Nigeria’s demographic dividend.

Lead and Executive Director, MSD for Mothers, Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, said prevailing culture impacts poor maternal health outcomes for women. This is typified when the countries that foster high levels of gender bias are the same countries where most maternal deaths occur. On leadership in healthcare, Etiebet reiterated that women make 70 per cent of the global healthcare workforce, but women occupy only 10 per cent to 20 per cent of leadership positions.”

Senior Technical Advisor, Tony Blair Institute, Dr. Ebere Okereke, said: “Despite the proliferation of women in the health workforce, the higher up you go, the fewer women there are. That means that the people who know best what is needed are not contributing to decision making about the system. And that does not result in good quality healthcare.”

According to WHO, 15 per cent of deaths in low- and middle-income countries are as a result of poor-quality health care, and their economic costs are valued at about $1.6 billion yearly.

It noted: “The quest to eliminate cervical cancer is one we are all committed to, and one which is the focus of the WHO global initiative that countries adopted a year ago to eliminate cervical cancer in the lifetime of young girls alive today.

“To achieve this goal, all countries must reach and maintain an incidence rate of below four cases per 100,000 women. Doing this demands action in three key areas by 2030. We must vaccinate 90 per cent of all girls against the cancer-causing human papilloma virus before the age of 15.

“We must also provide enough screening services to ensure that 70 per cent of women can access a high-performance test before they turn 35, and again by the age of 45.

“Finally, we must ensure that 90 per cent of women with pre-cancer can get the treatment they need, and that 90 per cent of women with invasive cancer receive the services they require to manage their condition and pain.”

Vice Chancellor, University of Global Health Equity and former Minister of Health in Rwanda, Prof. Agnes Binagwaho, said to increase the quality of care for women, quality of care delivery should be prioritised at all levels of care, and this can only be achieved by reinforcing inclusivity at all points of care. This, Binagwaho said, includes providing access to social determinants of quality health care such as education and meaningful work for women.

Binagwaho, Okereke and Etiebet were unanimous that empowering women to make life-saving decisions about their health care is crucial to their survival. This, they said, could involve increasing access to life-saving information by way of simple technology or access to finances that will afford a woman life-saving medicine.

Speaking on gender equality for sustainable development, Commissioner of Health, Kaduna State, Dr. Amina Mohammed Baloni, called on men to lead the advocacy. “We need to have male advocates. We need to culturally change the perception that women should not be in certain places. Women on their own part should be their own advocates. We need to come up as strong women that can perform and back it up with actions instead of depending on stereotypes,” she said.

Baloni applauded the Kaduna State government for being a lot more responsive to issues of women and issues that affect the population as a whole.

Veteran movie producer and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Biola Alabi Media, Biola Alabi, stressed the need for sexual and reproductive health talk and discussion to be properly restructured. “Men should be actively involved too. How we incorporate these details into our stories matter a lot because there is a huge misrepresentation on female health,” Alabi said.

Meanwhile, the objectives of the dialogue on Day One focused on the need to make women’s representation in media more inclusive and develop more gender-balanced news stories; elevate the conversation on how men can support women’s representation in male dominated leadership spaces as well as amplify the critical importance of women in leadership as a driver of improved gender equality.

The underrepresentation of women in media – both in leadership and as expert sources – is a fundamental issue.

Hence, the impact of women’s representation or the lack thereof was a point of deliberation by the ‘Women in Media’ panel. Based on their critical experience in media, panelists identified recommendations to improve the current media landscape for greater gender diversity in Nigeria.

Producer/Anchor, Channels Television, Chamberlain Usoh, shared how, over time, his views about projecting the important roles that women and girls in society play in programming have progressively changed. According to him, this portrayed the power of deliberate workplace policies and programming to address gender issues.

Founder and CEO of Megalectrics, Chris Ubosi, said: “They say to increase chances of winning the lottery, you must first buy a ticket. The same is true to expand the influence of women in the media. There should be training amongst journalists to discover the stereotype of the patriarchy.”

The media leads on the panel agreed that media houses are responsible for implementing policies that address issues like maternity leave, safety at work, equitable treatment, and pay parity for women in the media.

HeForShe is an invitation for men to stand in solidarity with women to create a bold, visible and united force for gender equality. Men are mostly in the driver’s seat when it comes to leadership across the globe, accounting for 76 per cent of senior leadership positions globally. It is thus imperative that they should be the main catalysts in pushing for gender equality.

General Partner, Ventures Platform, Kola Aina, shared key insights around gender equity in the venture capital industry. Data, he said, points to the fact that contrary to popular misconceptions, “a number of our high performing portfolio companies are led by female founders. We find that these companies are some of our better performing companies, and so it is actually good business to back female founded businesses.”

Executive Vice Chairman/CEO, Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (FCCPC), Prof. Babatunde Irukera, pointed to the lack of data that has spurred the misgivings many companies have about women in leadership.

To create an enabling environment for women and girls to thrive alongside men and boys, outputs from the conference show that it is imperative to increase the number of women who can stand to favourably compete in the marketplace. Some of the ways to achieve these include women already in leadership mentoring women, increasing the visibility of female experts through deliberate action by the media, and continuously identifying and rejecting gender stereotypes.

Women are powerful agents of change, and the benefits of diversity and gender parity in leadership and decision-making are increasingly recognised in all spheres. Still, women continue to be under-represented at the decision-making level in the areas of policy, business, and community life.

To mitigate these issues, MD/Chief Creative Officer, Noah’s Ark Communications, Lanre Adisa, proffered solutions such as flexible work options and more male involvement in family responsibilities and childcare which he believes will reduce the need for trade-offs that women often feel compelled to make at some point in their careers. These suggestions are backed by evidence and organisations that prioritise these policies have been known to increase their bottom line in the long run.

Executive Director, Africa No Filter, Moky Makura, said since women’s issues are human issues, “If you see something, say something. If you see that women are not being represented, say something. When people start to say something, that’s when we will see the change that we desire.” This supports the conference main advocacy objective that men and women should be champions of gender equality, and this must be consistent in policy and practice across sectors.

Chairperson, House Committee on Women, Oriyomi Onanuga, gave the keynote address on the panel session on ‘The Girl Child Dividends’ and opined that if Nigeria must enjoy any demographic dividend from the girl child in the future, it will depend on the amount of investment being made in the lives of adolescent girls in Nigeria today.

Senior Health Specialist, World Bank Nigeria, Dr. Olumide Okunola, discussed the role of the healthy productive adolescent girl in generating Nigeria’s demographic dividend. “There is a big opportunity for Nigeria to reap a demographic dividend, only if we have favorable changes in our population age structure,” he opined.

Programme Leader, Human Development, World Bank, Tekabe Belay, said investing in adolescent girls, particularly keeping them in school, and ensuring they are able to complete their secondary school is a huge investment that Nigeria can make in order to ensure a much-needed demographic dividend. “It requires a multi sector intervention,” he added.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. Gender equality lies at the heart of the Agenda, which recognises that achieving gender equality is a human right. While being a goal in its own right, gender equality cuts across all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and is reflected in 45 targets and 54 indicators for the SDGs.

The first edition of the Future of Health Conference (FHC) took place in 2015. Nigeria had just elected a new president therefore the conference theme – Redefining the Health Sector of our Dreams – was a timely call to the new government to prioritise health. Outputs and continuing conversations from that conference helped to put Universal Health Coverage front and centre in the conversation around affordable healthcare.

Globally, women have fewer opportunities for economic participation than men, less access to basic and higher education, greater health and safety risks, and less political representation. Women remain un-represented in leadership positions in finance, politics and governance. Women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 22 countries, while 119 countries have never had a woman leader. In addition, as discussed during the 26th UN Climate Change Conference, women are bearing a disproportionate burden of the climate crisis.

Nigeria is not left behind in the fight for gender equality. In 2006, Nigeria developed a National Gender Policy (NGP) designed to build a just society devoid of discrimination, harness the full potential of all social groups regardless of sex or circumstance, promote and protect the health, social, economic, and political well-being of all citizens to achieve equitable rapid economic growth, etc. However, 15 years after its creation, the NGP has not been implemented.

The 2021 Future of Health Conference brought together a diverse line up of speakers. The goal this year was to provide an elevated platform where experts from different walks of life could come together to share their experiences on the impact of gender equality in their sectors, present recommendations for individuals, communities, organisations and governments to promote gender equality, with the promise of positive dividend, proffer solutions for how gender equality could lead to sustainable development and better quality of care for women who have been historically disadvantaged. It is the hope of the organising committee that these insights and recommendations can provide a blueprint for young girls and women to break glass ceilings wherever they may find themselves.