As the race to contain one of the worst pandemics in history continues, there is an urgent need for more stringent and innovative strategies to battle COVID-19.
But on the world stage, one critically important element remains a low priority. While women perform 70 percent of the world’s healthcare services, they comprise only 25 percent of global health leadership. And while some might say debating gender statistics during a global health crisis is pointless, one believes it is the perfect time to focus on why more women’s leadership is needed – at decision-making tables, in high-level policy conversations, running community-level initiatives and serving in the highest positions of international health organisations.
African countries have many assets and strengths to respond to this pandemic because we have had many “practice drills” in coping with outbreaks of diseases like Ebola, chikungunya, yellow fever, cholera, dengue, malaria. As a result, we have myriad policies, strategies, and educational initiatives for pandemic response.
However, where gender equity is concerned, discrimination and exclusion of women in leadership is still deeply rooted globally – more so in Africa, where historically only men were the ones to make decisions and participate in problem-solving strategies. Now, more than in any other health crisis on the continent, it is necessary to take stringent and necessary steps in accommodating increased women’s participation in the design and implementation of solutions to the problem of controlling the spread of COVID-19.
One only has to study healthcare access and delivery at the local level to see why. As a researcher at the Kenya Medical Research Institute and the Pan African Mosquito Control Association, every day one sees women as key drivers in the utilisation of control tools that we implement. For example, when we roll out insecticide-treated bed nets for use in areas with high rates of malaria, women are the ones who are available to receive them, and also to make sure that members of their family are all covered by nets, including the husband.
We are all aware that women are the ones who ensure their children get proper treatment once they are diagnosed with malaria. Now, let us transfer that same energy to the policy table, or to the laboratory or to the strategy meeting. There is no questioning that in 2020, more women than ever on the African continent have received advanced education across a range of fields, including STEM: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. These are the professions that yield the solutions to health and development challenges in countries around the world.
And yet, on many COVID-19 strategy groups and management panels, women’s participation is scarce or non-existent. Of course, there are many highly qualified male experts at management levels, but there is a need to bring the force that has been missing and thus hindering the realisation of disease control and eventually eradication. Inclusion of women at decision-making tables will bring diverse perspectives and experiences which are rarely witnessed in a male-dominated management front.
Globally, the aforementioned majority of women at the front line of COVID-19 response may be at significantly greater risk of infection because of the roles they play in healthcare systems. This is coupled with the fact that they are also the primary home caregivers and community health volunteers. And yet, there are numerous reports of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed solely for men, and which do not take women’s menstrual needs into account.
Women also make up the majority (more than 80 percent) of the informal employment sector (domestic workers, small scale traders) in Africa, and they have been hit hard with the current measures developed to respond to COVID-19, especially the lockdowns. Here in Kenya, teenage pregnancies are reported to be rising during this period, effectively shuttering the dreams of the girl.
What difference would it make to have women leading the solutions to these COVID-19 related challenges? One believes it would fuel responsive strategies that provide effective solutions.
As a scientist, I am currently involved in the COVID-19 response in my country, focusing on testing and research. Because of my research background, I know there is an urgent need for more people to act as “contact tracers”. They are the front line workers who identify where cases exist, who those people have been in contact with, and who then communicate with those potential cases as well.
The women who are already caring for their families and communities have often earned the trust and the access needed to perform this kind of work. If it is compensated and professionalised on a wide scale, this could yield significant progress in stemming the spread of COVID-19.
It is clear the leadership, creativity and courage of women scientists, community advocates, policymakers and front-line workers is of equal value in times of crisis. At this point, locking out or hindering female participation in global health preparedness and emergency response could be catastrophic.
If Africa is to truly rise, it must embrace the wisdom, strength, and resilience of its women. As a scientist I have confirmed the validity of the evidence: Ask an African woman what it takes to keep her community healthy. Her decisions will save you.