Prioritising Women’s Health for Accelerated Progress

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As has been the tradition for nearly five decades, the International Women’s Day was globally celebrated on 8 March, 2024. The theme for this year’s edition is “Count Her In: Invest in Women. Accelerate Progress”. Among other objectives, the theme highlights the importance of gender equality, women’s and girls’ empowerment, and their rights to healthy lives.

In affirmation of this, the United Nations, in its statement to mark the occasion, noted that while the world is currently facing many crises, ranging from geopolitical conflicts to soaring poverty levels and the escalating impacts of climate change, the challenges can only be addressed by solutions that empower women. “By investing in women, we can spark change and speed the transition towards a healthier, safer, and more equal world for all,” the UN said.

While much of the emphasis of the commemoration has been on the inclusion of women in the social, political and cultural decision-making processes, it is also important to highlight the need to prioritise women’s health and put up measures that address health issues militating against their growth and development. Indeed, as IWD is aimed at celebrating the achievements and contributions of women worldwide, it also serves as a reminder of the significant disparities that persist, particularly in healthcare access and outcomes.

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For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO), recently reported that “Globally, a woman dies of pregnancy-related causes every two minutes,” adding that “most of these deaths are preventable with the right care at the right time.” Similarly, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) disclosed that the lowest levels of ante-natal care are observed in sub-Saharan Africa and South-Asia.

The Nigerian situation is particularly concerning and should jolt all stakeholders in healthcare to take the theme of the IWD 2004 seriously. Statistics continue to show that women in the country encounter a myriad of health issues stemming from various factors, which include socio-economic inequalities, cultural norms, and inadequate healthcare infrastructure. Maternal mortality rates remain alarmingly high, with Nigeria accounting for a significant proportion of global maternal deaths. According to the WHO, Nigeria contributes about 19 per cent of the global maternal deaths, despite having only 2 per cent of the world’s population. This staggering statistic underscores the urgent need for targeted interventions to improve maternal health outcomes.

One of the primary reasons behind these high maternal mortality rates is the lack of access to quality maternal healthcare services. Many women in Nigeria, especially those living in rural areas, face barriers such as distance to health facilities, lack of transportation, and financial constraints. Additionally, cultural and religious beliefs and practices often deter women from seeking timely medical assistance during pregnancy and childbirth, leading to preventable complications and deaths. Some of these beliefs include prohibition of certain medical procedures, such as blood transfusion. Efforts must be made to dislodge such deep-rooted impediments. Healthcare is a fundamental human right and should supersede any religious or cultural belief that violates its life-saving interventions.

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It must also be emphasised that reproductive health issues, including access to contraception and family planning services, remain inadequately addressed in the country. Limited awareness and education about reproductive rights and healthcare options contribute to unintended pregnancies and unsafe abortions, putting women’s health and lives at risk. Added to these is the prevalence of gender-based violence, which not only inflicts physical and psychological harm but also has long-term implications for women’s health. Survivors of gender-based violence often suffer from trauma, depression, and other mental health disorders, yet access to mental health support services remains limited in many parts of Nigeria.

To address these challenges, concerted efforts are needed at multiple levels. Firstly, the Nigerian government must prioritise women’s health on the national agenda and allocate adequate resources towards improving maternal healthcare infrastructure, expanding access to family planning services, and implementing comprehensive sexual and reproductive health programs.

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Additionally, community-based initiatives aimed at raising awareness about women’s health issues, combating harmful cultural practices, and promoting gender equality are crucial for driving positive change. Empowering women with knowledge about their health rights and facilitating their access to healthcare services can significantly improve health outcomes and contribute to overall societal development.

Moreover, partnerships between government agencies, non-governmental organisations, and international stakeholders are vital for implementing sustainable solutions and scaling up successful interventions. By working together, we can create a supportive environment where every Nigerian woman has the opportunity to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.

As Nigeria joins the rest of the world to mark this important day, all stakeholders must reaffirm commitment to prioritising women’s health and well-being in the country. By addressing the systemic barriers and inequalities that impede access to healthcare services, we can pave the way for a future where Nigerian women can thrive and contribute to building a healthier and more equitable society.

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