Championing Women

In view of International Women’s Day – Wednesday March 8th – we celebrate the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women worldwide. The theme for this year focuses on “Women in the Changing World of Work: Planet 50-50 by 2030”.

According to the UN, the world of work is changing, and with significant implications for women. On the one hand, we have globalization, technological and digital revolution and the opportunities they bring. On the other hand, the growing informality of labour, unstable livelihoods and incomes, new fiscal and trade policies and environmental impacts – all of which must be addressed in the context of women’s economic empowerment.

In 2015, world leaders adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, placing gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Achievement of the goals, including ending poverty, promoting inclusive and sustainable economic growth, reducing inequalities within and between countries, and achieving gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls, rests upon unlocking the full potential of women in the world of work.

Measures that are key to ensuring women’s economic empowerment in the changing world of work must include bridging the gender pay gap, which stands at 24 per cent globally; recognizing women’s unpaid care and domestic work and addressing the gender deficit in care work; as well as addressing the gender gaps in leadership, entrepreneurship and access to social protection; and ensuring gender-responsive economic policies for job creation, poverty reduction and sustainable, inclusive growth. Additionally, policies must count for the overwhelming majority of women in the informal economy, promote women’s access to innovative technologies and practices, decent work and climate-resilient jobs and protect women from violence in the work place. On International Women’s Day, UN Women calls upon all actors to Step It Up for Gender Equality towards a Planet 50-50 by 2030**.

As the largest African health organisation, Amref Health Africa underlines the need for economic empowerment of women. When women are healthy, they can take care of their families. Amref Health Africa therefore ensures people have the knowledge, skills and means to break the cycle of poor health and poverty. They do that by championing women who are at the heart of family and community health. Please find below three stories that will illustrate the strength of African women.

“I’ve been a qualified nurse for five years, but it’s been in my heart for a long time. When I was a girl my cousin had epilepsy. He had a terrible fall during a fit and had to go to the hospital. When he returned I was asked to take care of him. I dressed his wounds and looked after him for weeks. That was the start of it.

Before Masumbwe Health Centre was upgraded, women and babies were dying who we could have been saved, given the facilities. The staff knew it and I think the women knew it too. One night a woman who was deep in labour came. It wasn’t going well – there were too many complications for us to handle. We simply didn’t have the equipment and training. So the doctors agreed we should refer her to the district hospital. It felt like a death sentence for her and she seemed to know. When I told her she had to transfer she kept crying and saying “don’t send me there, I will die.” It was a long journey and they were so busy when she arrived that it took them more than six hours to take her to theatre. Then she bled to death on the table. Now when I see her husband I feel terrible. I wish we could have saved her. If she had come to us today she wouldn’t have died. It’s hard to live with but I can’t change it. Now I focus on preventing that happening again.

With the additional training from an Amref project I’m now a specialist anaesthetic nurse, which I juggle with being a single mother. Last week I was attending to a woman having a caesarean and training a student in the procedure. A junior nurse came to tell me that a woman had arrived with a stillborn breech baby. It’s sometimes hard to know where to go, how to split yourself between the people who need you.

Even though I had to make difficult decisions that night I’m proud of how I handled it. I was able to leave my student with the doctors in the caesarean. I went to the labouring woman and confirmed that her baby had died. It’s never easy to tell people terrible truths but I was able to spend some time with her giving comfort. Then I helped her birth her dead baby and stopped her haemorrhaging. I was able to return to supervise a difficult part of the caesarean. We saved two women and a baby in very complex circumstances in the space of minutes that night. It’s not always easy but it’s worth it.”

Anne Kamene was one of the first students at Amref Health Africa’s Virtual Training School (AVTS), training to become a registered nurse in 2007. She had previously joined a classroom-based scheme to gain her nursing certificate. “I am a single mother, with two children. I always held an ambition to become a nurse. In 1992, I joined Muranga Medical Training Centre in Central Province to study for an Enrolled Community Health Nursing Certificate. The course took two and a half years to complete, at a cost of 30,000 Kenyan shillings. I had the option to continue studying for a registered nursing diploma, but by then my daughter was eight years old and I needed to begin working as a Community Nurse rather than continue study. I could not afford to pay tuition fees and there seemed to end my dream to become a nurse.

However, when I found out about the e-learning course, I started to hope that the opportunity was there for me after all. I enrolled on the e‐learning programme in March 2007, as part of the first class of students at AVNS. The best aspect of the programme was its flexibility, allowing me to remain in full-time employment. I did not have to leave my job or family.

I am more confident now, as I can diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions, from mental illness to infectious diseases.

Before I joined the programme, I had never even used a computer before. To my surprise, I did not find it hard to adapt to e-learning. We spent two weeks being coached in IT skills. I would not say that I am computer literate, but I can use a computer well enough to run the programme. The e-learning programme taught me many new skills. I am more confident now, as I can diagnose and treat a wide range of medical conditions, from mental illness to infectious diseases. Previously, I would rely on advice from senior nurses and doctors. Today, I can treat more patients independently. I am even able to notice mistakes made by doctors.

Now, I am a proud to say that I am a qualified registered nurse. My next dream is to one day continue my nursing education to degree level.”

Jacqueline is a Community Health Volunteer, trained by Amref Health Africa. Jacqueline lives and works in Kibera, Nairobi assisting on the maternity wards and visiting pregnant women and new mothers in their homes. “Before the facility was introduced here in Kibera, people used to have to walk a very long way to visit health facilities. It was difficult for them to get the care they needed, but this isn’t the case anymore. They feel encouraged, because this facility is on their doorstep.

My life has changed a lot since becoming a Community Health Volunteer. I walk everywhere with confidence because I am empowered and I continue to learn. Amref provide a lot of training and now I can use my knowledge for capacity building. I am empowered to work in the community and also in this health facility. I do home visits in this community, educating the people.

In the past, many expectant mothers wouldn’t have seen a health worker or nurse at all before giving birth. Now, in the maternity ward, we advise mothers on birth plans and we prepare them before their delivery. We identify pregnant women in the community and refer them to the clinic, so they get the help and support they need to give birth safely. We hope to see them at least four times, so that their health can be shaped well. We also encourage mothers to get tested for HIV.

Since we have been trained, we have made a great impact. I appreciate the knowledge I have because I use it everywhere I go. We work alongside health professionals, so we continue to build and grow our experience because we are always learning. I am happy I live here, because I am part of the community and when I refer people here I feel confident they will get the best possible care.”

The life of Jacqueline has changed a lot since becoming a Community Health Volunteer.

*Patricia Vermeulen is CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.

** See for more information.