Women are especially central to the three Millennium Development Goals that are focused on improving global health, with targets aimed at reducing child and maternal deaths and curbing the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases.
African women are hit the hardest by diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria and suffer the most from the lack of trained staff, basic health supplies and access to clinics and hospitals. But, as mothers, they are powerful forces in improving the health of their children.
Equipping one woman with the proper knowledge and tools - for example, to prevent HIV/AIDS, determine the size of her family and the spacing of her children, give birth safely in a health facility and protect her children from getting preventable diseases such as diarrhea and malaria - will also help ensure that families grow to be healthy and strong. And because women fill the ranks of nurses, health workers and care-givers for neighbours and family members with HIV/AIDS, they often act as liaison points for improved health across their communities.
Walking to a healthier future in Ethiopia
Walking miles to fight disease is all in a day's work for Lomita. Lomita has been a health extension worker in Ethiopia for three years - four if you include the one year's intensive training.
She's one of over 30,000 educated Ethiopian women who travel from rural home to rural home to teach families how to prevent disease.
"I love my work because I am part of this community. I share their sadness or their suffering. Becoming a health extension worker and helping my people is a true gift," she says.
In fact, the government has now trained two workers in every village to help deliver bed nets to protect families from deadly malaria-carrying mosquitoes, vaccines to keep kids healthy and medicine to treat the sick. As part of her job, Lomita also keeps track of the number of pregnancies, births and types of disease that she sees. She then shares this with the government, giving officials better statistics to decide where to channel their funding.
Because of her hard work, Lomita has seen much less illness in her village. As she says, -Because we educate the community, they make better choices.- She’s proud to see that they’re making better choices - and her country, too. The health extension worker programme - supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI) - has helped cut malaria cases in half and has given more Ethiopians access to vaccines than ever before.
Lomita’s helping to keep her family, her community and her country healthy for the long term.
- Story adapted from the Living Proof Project and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Access to life-saving interventions such as antiretroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS, bed nets to protect against malaria, and vaccines has expanded dramatically over the past decade. However, health systems in sub-Saharan Africa remain extremely weak and the region lags far behind in prevention, treatment and care efforts, particularly with respect to tuberculosis, maternal, newborn and child health. In 2010 and beyond, development partners should collaborate towards the following goals:
Continue to fight infectious diseases: Improving health for African women and their families requires sustaining the progress made against diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and polio, which often hit women and children the hardest. Between 2011 and 2013, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria will need $17-20 billion to maintain successful programmes and meet demand for new ones.
Increase efforts for maternal, newborn and child health: Development partners need to increase access to interventions that will keep mothers and children healthy from pregnancy to five years of age, along with support for strengthening overall systems and infrastructure to improve health more broadly. One critical multilateral mechanism for improving child health is the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations (GAVI). GAVI will need an additional $4.3 billion between 2010 and 2015. Development partners should also clarify and follow through on their commitments to the 2010 Muskoka Initiative to improve maternal, newborn and child health.