Picture: iSTOCK
Picture: iSTOCK

Africa’s women have made a great deal of progress in recent decades, but much more remains to be done to ensure their economic empowerment, safety and good health.

While women across the continent can now take their rightful place in industry and government, millions more remain isolated, oppressed and underserved.

But women are drivers of any economy, and possibly more so in Africa. They birth hope and continuity. They inspire and invest in their families. Time and again, women’s empowerment programmes have shown long-term expanded benefits for their families and the communities they live in. In fact, studies have found women tend to invest 90% of their incomes back into their families, compared with a 30% to 40% investment in their families by men. 

Traditionally, men were the hunters and women the nurturers, and this has not changed much, particularly in the rural context in which millions of Africa’s women live, keeping their homes in order and enabling their family members to achieve.

In communities where the men migrate to urban areas for work, women manage the homesteads ably and single-handedly. The poem praising motherhood, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle Is the Hand That Rules the World (William Ross Wallace), is particularly applicable here.

But when women’s health is compromised, entire family structures fall apart, with long-term impacts on their communities. In countries such as SA, where 47% of children under the age of six live in households headed by women, the impact of maternal death is particularly devastating. 

I have seen first-hand cases where the mother dies first and a whole home is broken, especially in cases where she dies of HIV/AIDS.

Developing nations’ dilemma

Sadly, however, Africa’s women are more likely than their sisters in developed nations to die from a number of health conditions and non-communicable diseases (NCDs). For example, maternal health — encompassing pregnancy, childbirth and contraception — is a key challenge across Africa. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and 99% of them are in developing countries.

The incidence of breast cancer is increasing among African women, with an estimated 94,378 new cases diagnosed in Sub-Saharan Africa alone each year. Diabetes, also increasing in Africa, affects up to 15% of adults aged 25 to 64 in Africa and the number of people with diabetes is estimated to rise to 23.9-million cases by 2035. An estimated 7% of African women aged 15 to 54 years currently suffer from diabetes, too.

The list goes on: HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), cardiovascular diseases, domestic abuse and mental health issues all add to the burden women face across the continent. They face the pressure of family and marriage issues, childbirth, work-life integration, and sometimes need to prove themselves, all of which can lead to depression if not managed well.

With International Women’s Day just having been celebrated, all society should take steps to recognise the crucial role women play, and look to ease their burden and supporting healthier, happier lives for Africa’s women. The pharmaceutical sector, too, has a responsibility to leverage its strengths for everyone’s benefit, and work with the private and public sector in both rural and urban communities to ensure that the solutions we provide are practical and tailor-made towards solving the challenges affecting these people.

With diversity, empowerment and better health for all among the foundations of the Novartis culture, we are working to better the lives of women across the continent in a number of ways.

For example, to address the need for access to affordable medicines, the Novartis Access programme offers a portfolio of 15 on- and off-patent medicines addressing key NCDs: cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, respiratory illnesses and breast cancer. We are also dedicated to finding new medicines for neglected diseases and various infectious diseases, including malaria, African sleeping sickness, leishmaniasis and Chagas disease, as well as supporting healthcare professionals across the continent through education and resources aimed at delivering better patient care.

• Baraza is Africa cluster head at Novartis.