But this crucial role could diminish in the next few years, as women face their own health-care battles. One major challenge is diabetes, with the latest statistics showing that women remain the most vulnerable to this lifestyle disease compared to males.
Locally diabetes has become the biggest killer of South African women, and according to the Statistics SA - the statistics only paint an even worse story on its socio-economic toll.
According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), almost 200 million women live with diabetes worldwide. This total is projected to increase to 313 million by 2040.
It is the ninth leading cause of death in women globally, causing 2.1 million deaths per year.
Unfortunately, because of poor socio-economic conditions, girls and women with diabetes experience barriers in accessing cost-effective diabetes prevention, early detection, diagnosis, treatment and care, particularly in developing countries.
Socio-economic inequalities also expose women to the main risk factors of diabetes including poor diet and nutrition, physical inactivity, tobacco consumption and harmful use of alcohol.
World Diabetes Day is observed today and the theme this year focuses on: Women and diabetes - our right to a healthy future.
Commenting on the severity of the illness and how it’s currently being managed, Arvind Hariram AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals’ medical adviser said, “While existing medicines have been of great benefit in the management of diabetes, treatment goals still remain suboptimal and there’s a need for newer treatment options to manage this progressive disease.”
Speaking at the company’s Connecting Experts in Diabetes Forum in Cape Town, key opinion leader and endocrinologist - Dr Sundeep Ruder made a strong case for education and advocacy in the treatment of diabetes, stating that science cannot be seen in isolation.
He said: “With current research showing the impact of stress, job strain, sleep abnormalities and food security on increased risk of diabetes - there’s now an even stronger need for education to better manage the pandemic.”
According to the diabetes federation, about 20.9 million around the world or 16.2% of live births to women in 2015 had some form of hyperglycaemia in pregnancy.
Firgures show that half of all women, particularly those in child-bearing years, are worst affected by diabetes with one in seven births affected by gestational diabetes mellitus.
Even more distressing is the fact that half of those that experience diabetes during pregnancy are likely to develop Type 2 diabetes within five to 10 years after delivery.
Half of all cases of hyperglycaemia (insulin resistance) in pregnancy occur in women under the age of 30, with the majority of these cases happening in low- and middle-income countries, where access to maternal care is often limited.
Women with Type 2 diabetes are almost 10 times more likely to have coronary heart disease than are women without the condition.
Dr Larry Distiller, a specialist physician and endocrinologist who also chairs the Centre of Diabetes and Endocrinology, said that this year’s awareness campaign is focused on promoting the importance of affordable and equitable access for all women at risk for, or living with, diabetes.
The campaign advocates that women and girls are key agents in the adoption of healthy lifestyles to improve the health and well-being of future generations.
“While we advocate an awareness of diabetes for all people, this year’s campaign specifically aims to highlight the essential diabetes treatments and technologies, self-management education and information that women require to achieve optimal diabetes outcomes and strengthen their capacity to self-manage or prevent Type 2 diabetes”.
Distiller added that women with diabetes may have poor pregnancy outcomes if good care is not accessible from preconception through to post-delivery. In fact, without pre-conception planning, Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes can result in a significantly higher risk of maternal and child mortality and morbidity.
Women with Type 1 diabetes have an increased risk of early miscarriage or having a baby with malformations.
“To achieve optimal diabetes outcomes, women need to have access not only to diabetes treatments and technologies, but also to self-management education and information and to good pre-conception planning, antenatal and obstetric services to reduce risks associated with pregnancy,” Distiller said.”