Securing African Women’s Health Futures: The growing burden of NCDs

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Brief following the launch of the report Women and NCDs in Africa: Mapping the scale, actors and extent of rights-based work to address the impact of NCDs on African women.

Written by: Dinnah Nabwire, Knowledge Management Specialist, AWDF

Many people think that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) disproportionately affect men and richer populations especially those in the Global North. However, research shows that NCDs are increasingly becoming a leading cause for death and disability among women in low- and middle-income countries, disproportionately affecting those in the lowest socioeconomic groups, with direct negative implications to development, human rights and social justice.

Professor Ana Mocumbi, the co-chair of The Lancet Commission on NCDs and injuries, made these observations during her keynote address at the AWDF launch of the report Women and NCDs in Africa: Mapping the scale, actors and extent of rights-based work to address the impact of NCDs on African women during a virtual event at the Women and Girls Africa Summit. The report which is available in both English and French is a compilation of findings from a continent-wide study in all 54 countries to assess the scale and key gendered concerns around NCDs with a focus on cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases, and mental health. It also maps key actors and the extent of rights-based work on NCDs in Africa. An executive summary of the report is also available in both English and French and provides a synthesis of the key findings.

The findings of the report are an important step in consolidating evidence to drive change within an area of women’s health that remains under researched and under prioritised both on the continent and globally. They offer grounds for reflection on the importance of a rights-based approach to tackling NCDs in the bid to attain universal health coverage and the sustainable development goals by 2030

At the launch, Dr. Johanna Riha, the lead researcher for the report shared the discomforting statistics which showed that women and girls in Africa bore a greater burden of NCDs with the most common being neurological conditions, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and chronic respiratory diseases.

The research also found that African governments are underspending on health with NCDs being an even lower priority. Moreover, in Africa, as in many parts of the world, investments in women’s health remain largely focused on the reproductive years thereby excluding older and elderly groups of women, which have a much higher incidence of NCDs.

Furthermore, a lack of life-course approach to dealing with women’s health has meant that opportunities are missed to impact the health of current and future generations of women as exposures to risk factors early in life, and even in utero, can have longer term consequences.

The report also highlighted the critical role women-led rights-based organisations have been playing and can play in tackling the burden of NCDs on the continent, however they remained significantly under resourced, under recognised, and under supported.

The report is an important step in consolidating evidence to drive change within an area of women’s health that remains under researched and under prioritised both on the continent and globally. It presents major findings for reflection on the importance of a rights-based approach to tackling NCDs in the bid to attain universal health coverage and the sustainable development goals by 2030.

“Addressing NCDs is not just a women’s issue. It is a prerequisite for addressing widespread social and economic costs across Africa and guaranteeing sustainable development outcomes globally”. -Dr. Johanna Riha

At the launch, Dr. Beatrice Wiafe Addai shared frontline experiences from her leadership in preventing and responding to NCDs and specifically breast cancer at Breast Care International in Ghana. During her speech she also emphasised the urgency required in addressing NCDs particularly at a time when the world is affected by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only do NCDs increase the risk of adverse outcomes among those who contract COVID-19, but in many countries, like in Ghana, the outbreak of COVID-19 negatively impacted provision of services for the prevention and response to NCDs.

Dr. Beatrice noted that national health personnel, supplies and equipment were being channeled away from other areas and towards addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, in-country lockdowns have meant reduced access to healthcare services. For example, Breast Care International has seen an increase in women presenting with late-stage cases of cancer due to postponed access to care.

“After the ease of the COVID-19 sanctions in the period March and August 2020, frontline workers at Breast Care International are seeing more women coming to service centres with unfortunately, worsened cases from postponed access to care and support”. -Dr. Beatrice Wiafe Addai

Evidence-based conversations are crucial to help us understand the scale of what is happening to women and girls during the pandemic and the impact on NCD prevention and response. Moreover, these conversations will help us work towards shaping the futures we want for ourselves as African women and girls.

AWDF believes that realising this future we imagine for healthier women and girls requires investing differently in women-led rights-based organisations. In this vein, Pontso Mafethe, AWDF’s Director of Programmes, put out a call to action, which emphasised four key areas of investment. These are: (1) promoting land rights and food security to ensure women and girls access and utilise the foods they need to thrive; (2) placing women and girls at the centre of sustainable energy solutions as majority of them in rural areas are exposed to indoor pollution through the use of firewood; (3) addressing violence against women and other intersectional inequalities to secure mental health and wellbeing; and (4) exploring partnerships with African women led organisations which continue to champion advocacy, awareness, care and support to address NCDs among women and girls on the continent amidst low resources. The call to action is also available in both English and French.

A recording of discussions that took place at the launch of the report can be accessed here. Join AWDF on our social media platforms to continue this conversation.

(This article was first published on www.awdf.org )

African Women’s Development Fund supports autonomous organisations on initiatives for transformation led by African women.

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