A clarion call for Africa’s earth mothers to share personal health struggles

Merilynn Steenkamp

Merilynn Steenkamp

Published Mar 12, 2024


Merilynn Steenkamp

President Sahle-Work Zewde, the first woman president of Ethiopia, said: “If the history of Africa was written by Africans and by women, I think we would find many unsung heroes.”

History cannot be rewritten, but we can write a new chapter; one in which African women are respected as equals by men and women alike, are healthier, live longer, happier lives and have access to the same opportunities that men do.

According to the Gender Inequality Index, while there have been many recent advances in women’s empowerment on the continent, African women are held back from fulfilling their potential by many constraints, and one of the primary barriers women face is access to essential healthcare and diagnostics.

Voices unheard – The African women’s health crisis

“I lost a maternal aunt to cervical cancer that was discovered late. Because I was around 14 years old, it did not occur to me until my 20s that she was very young when she died – around 32 years old.

“I also did not think that she would die. I did my first pap in my early 20s, and I am now strict about doing so regularly, or (preferably) an HPV test.

“The reality is that still in Africa thousands of women of all ages die from this. Education about screening tends to end in urban areas or online, and many are not familiar with the latter.”Anonymous, South Africa

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), women in Africa are more likely to die from communicable, maternal, neo-natal, and nutritional (CMNN) diseases than women in other regions. These communicable diseases include HIV, tuberculosis and malaria.

Delivering better healthcare to Africa’s women begins with more effective diagnosis, 60–70% of clinical decisions are affected by laboratory test results – both in and out of the hospital. Diagnostics is the first step in the patient’s healthcare journey, yet 47% of the global population has little to no access to diagnostics, and this primarily affects poor, rural and marginalised communities – many of which are in Africa.

Beyond the statistics – A glimmer of hope

“I always had irregular periods, but I read it was normal for some women. It was only when I had a bad reaction to anti-conception (medication) that I was diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome), at age 25.

“I left the doctor’s office with a diagnosis, but without any explanation of what it meant. What followed were years of my own research and self-education and I finally understood my symptoms were not only in my head. I learned a lot about my health, my cycles, how to track ovulation naturally and more.

“Knowledge I should have had as a teenager to help me identify my condition sooner.” – Anonymous

Throughout Africa, our people are known for their storytelling traditions. Every great story has many chapters, and in the story of Africa, for our heroes (or heroines) to triumph, they must face conflict along the way. For women, the story has reached the most exciting part – where adversity is set to be conquered and victory is within reach.

As the numbers have it, Africa still has a long way to go until its women can access the diagnostics and care they need. But in May 2023, the WHO member states adopted the Resolution on Strengthening Diagnostics Capacity, which urges governments to prioritise diagnostics and significantly ramp up access to testing.

The Resolution signals that governments and policymakers globally have recognised the value of diagnostics, understanding the evidence – the success stories we have seen when the public and private sectors cooperate for the good of patients.

Our stories cannot be ignored

Public-private partnerships are gaining ground in the fight for better women’s health. For example, In Kenya, the EMPOWER Project – a women’s health initiative aimed at ramping up prevention, early diagnosis and treatment of breast and cervical cancers – is a unique partnership between public, private and not-for-profit organisations that has (thus far) established 17 clinics in rural areas.

These clinics have also trained 300 community health workers and healthcare professionals in facility and community-based screening. To date, more than 25 000 women have been screened and 950 women are now receiving treatment.

The statistics may be striking, but they become real when you put a face behind the numbers. This was the thinking behind the #XProject My Story for Change. This online initiative was a clarion call for women worldwide, prompting them to share their health stories to help change how we approach women’s health.

The many stories that emerged were full of dismissal, bias, misdiagnosis and indifference. But there were also stories of strength, courage and hope. These are the narratives that have made global organisations like the WHO take notice. Our stories must be told, and Africa’s women must keep telling them.

To conclude, it is relevant to share one of those powerful and touching stories here – one that is a testament to the difference diagnosis can make to one woman’s life and the lives of her family.

I hope we see more stories like it in the years ahead:

“19 years ago, I was diagnosed with HIV. At the time, I was a single mother of two babies.

“I thought that was the end for me, but thankfully, my babies tested negative. Now they are 22 and 19 respectively, and to this day, through all of my struggles and toughest of challenges, they are not aware of my status.

“I did not and will not allow HIV to define me. I still push myself to reach high heights of greatness. I am responsible for my well-being and have committed to taking ARVs and leading a healthy lifestyle. Life is great even in the face of adversity.” – Anonymous, South Africa

As we observed International Women’s Day on March 8, let’s tell our stories to inspire a world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together, we can forge women’s equality. Collectively, we can inspire inclusion, celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness about discrimination and take action to drive gender parity.

Merilynn Steenkamp is General Manager, South Africa Multi-Country Network at Roche Diagnostics.

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