To empower women, we must invest in their health

Friday, March 8th, 2024 21:18 | By
Health CS Susan Nakhumicha flags off Cold Chain Equipment at Afya House in Nairobi. PHOTO/Philip Kamakya
Health CS Susan Nakhumicha flags off Cold Chain Equipment at Afya House in Nairobi. PHOTO/Philip Kamakya

A 2024 World Economic Forum report reveals startling data on women’s health. According to the report 25 per cent of women spend 25 per cent more time in poor health than men.

The report argues that addressing women’s health gap could generate the equivalent impact of 137 million women accessing full-time positions by 2040 and makes the case that this would boost the global economy by $1 trillion annually – a 1.7 per cent increase in per capita gross domestic product (GDP).

Early this year I had the honor to be appointed to serve on the board of the World Economic Forum Global Alliance for Women’s Health. This appointment not only gives me a unique platform to elevate health issues facing women especially  Africa but also an opportunity to reflect on our health situation.

Kenya has prioritized Universal Health Coverage and investment in primary health care as the vehicle for advancing health equity and ensuring that no one is left behind. While we scale up these efforts, it is important to keep an eye on health disparities underpinned by gender inequalities as a key barrier.  Data shows that Kenyan women carry a disproportionately bigger health burden with maternal deaths, HIV, cancer and malaria among some of the leading health challenges. The current maternal mortality stands at 355 deaths per 100,000 live births, which the global average.  Twice as many women (4.9 per cent) are living with HIV than men (2.4 per cent).

Maternal mortality and morbidity (which refers to any short or long-term health complications arising from pregnancy and childbirth, that can lead to death) has been declining over the past decade from a high of 488 according to the Kenya demographic Survey of 2009 to 355 in the 2019 census. However, majority of these deaths are preventable as they are a result of poor access to quality healthcare services.

To address these issues, we must work together to re-engineer our health care and shift our investment from curative to promotive and preventive. Indeed, the government has made this shift a key priority as part of our push towards realisation of universal health coverage.

Access to family planning and increasing use of contraceptives to address unplanned pregnancies has been a key focus of the ministry’s efforts to reduce maternal deaths and this has seen an increase in contraceptive prevalence rates from 39 per cent in 2009 to 58 per cent in 2022.

Under UHC 2020-2030 strategy one of the key targets is to expand the population covered by health services with a focus on the underserved, marginalized and vulnerable populations. I believe that women and girls are a key vulnerable group that we must deliberately target.

Last year, President Ruto launched a workforce of 100,000 Community Health Promoters, each equipped with essential knowledge and tools and that are deployed to pivotal role in implementing the Community Health Strategy, essential for realizing primary healthcare goals.

Another major driving force to realization of UHC is adequate financing and directing resources to where they are most needed – the primary healthcare level. To address this the government is rolling out the Social Health Insurance Fund (SHIF) and the establishment of the Social Health Authority.  Under the current National Health Insurance Fund arrangement, many women are not covered largely because they cannot afford the premiums. A major advantage of SHIF is that it provides comprehensive medical coverage from the primary health care leave and extend benefits covering beneficiaries who have exhausted their covers.

Whereas these policy efforts are critical in setting the pace, I  believe in building strong partnerships. For example, as a way of appreciating the unique needs of women, the public and private sectors must work together to develop and advance innovations that specifically target addressing women’s health issues.

The World Health Organization has underscored the need to promote gender equality in health with a call on countries to mainstream gender in health through the development of gender-responsive health policies. Beyond such policies there is need to implement programmes to strengthen health sector response to gender-based violence, address gender equality in health workforce development, as well as gender-related barriers to health services.

It is a fact that when women thrive, communities thrive and our own statistics and those from the World Economic Forum show that a major obstacle to women’s progress is their poor state of health and therefore investing in women’s health has a direct contribution to women’s economic empowerment.

—The writer is the Health Cabinet Secretary

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