Education and health issues affecting women and girls in Africa

On March 15, the Africa Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) organized a presentation titled “Education and Health Issues Affecting African Women and Girls Today.” Moderated by Africa Program Chair and Retired Ambassador Charles A. Ray, it included two panelists: former Ambassador to Burkina Faso and Uganda Jimmy Kolker and former Ambassador to Nigeria and the Republic of Congo Robin Renee Sanders. Ambassadors Kolker and Sanders discussed barriers to education for African women and girls, as well as current health issues that impede their economic, political and social development. Below is an overall summary of the presentation.

Women’s issues and development issues – one and the same

The mobilization of all the resources of a country, in particular its human resources, is the key to the development of this country. However, when more than half of the population is marginalized, development becomes an unattainable goal. When this percentage is made up of women and girls who, in Africa, constitute the majority of the agricultural labor force and are responsible for the health and well-being of families, it is a particularly problematic acute. Our panelists on the current state of health and education for women and girls on the African continent.

“Sixty percent of HIV-positive people in Africa are women,” said Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, former chief of the HIV/AIDS section at UNICEF headquarters in New York, and who is currently senior adviser to the coordinator of the Global Covid Response and Health Security at the US Department of State. Kolker went on to say that the growth of HIV infections among women is due to a number of factors. “Men’s reluctance to be tested and treated and not be virally suppressed transmits HIV to their sexual partners.” Additionally, says Kolker, a woman’s anatomy makes her more vulnerable to HIV.

The disproportionate impact of the HIV epidemic in Africa on women and girls makes it all the more important to have education programs that focus on health and to target these programs particularly at women and girls.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated a dire situation. “There has been an alarming increase in teenage pregnancies and child marriages, particularly in West and Central Africa during the pandemic,” said Ambassador Robin Sanders, who is the CEO of FEEEDS & FE3DS, LLC. girls between the ages of 9 and 18 got pregnant. “That,” Sanders said, “was a 40% increase over Kenya’s pre-pandemic monthly average.”

Bridging the education gap

In order to address the myriad development challenges facing sub-Saharan African countries, it is essential to close the education gaps between men and women, including by addressing the literacy gap for all students. “In Uganda, for example,” said Kolker, “thirteen percent of third-grade students could not read or recognize a single letter of the English alphabet.” It is at this level, said Kolker, that education in most African countries shifts from local languages ​​to English and the lack of progress from this point leads many children, boys and girls, to drop out of school.

Most African governments have long recognized that a key driver of economic development is the empowerment of women and girls. But Africa has been much slower than other parts of the world to achieve this goal. Some countries are doing better than others. In Niger, for example, where the birth rate of 7.6 children per woman is one of the highest in the world, the government organizes a “School for husbands”, which provides information on family planning and reproductive health. provided by trusted traditional community leaders. In Rwanda, improved tenure security enabled women landowners to increase their land investments by 18%, double the level achieved by men in the country.

Need for targeted development assistance and community engagement

Women and girls in Africa rely more on development programs for critical health risk education and to increase literacy than men due to the limited opportunities afforded them by the societies in which they live. With women’s health at risk due to the spread of HIV/AIDS, the COVID-19 pandemic and other diseases, education is essential to providing life-saving health care to women and girls as individuals and to enable them to take better care of others. effectively.

Introducing grassroots development programs focused on women and girls can facilitate access to the highest possible standards of health and well-being, which in turn can benefit the communities in which these women live. and these girls. As the old African proverb says, “if you educate a man, you educate an individual”. But if you educate a woman, you educate a nation. In rural areas far from the urban centers of a country, women are often the main vectors of knowledge, the main agricultural workers and those who are responsible for the well-being of their villages. The establishment of these targeted development programs at the local level will enable these isolated communities to receive education on health issues that might otherwise be denied to them.

Access to education is, according to Sanders, the key. “Less than fifty percent of African women have completed their education above elementary level,” she said. One way to address this problem, Sanders argues, would be to register births more accurately in sub-Saharan Africa to allow full documentation of the number of girls who will need to attend school. Educational programs should have a strong health focus, especially on women’s health issues. Development staff and policy makers need to engage with religious leaders, community leaders and elders to gain their buy-in to focus programs on women and girls, according to Sanders, and this is needed in all parts of the world. continent, in rural and urban areas. areas.

Africa’s women have been called by some a “powerful and untapped economic force” essential to the development of the continent. On a continent that will have more than half of the world’s population by 2100, continuing to ignore more than fifty percent of that population is not only reckless but dangerous. The biggest challenge facing African countries is creating enough jobs to absorb population growth, and a critical element of job creation is the need to reduce the employment gap between men and women. women, which will only continue to grow if the appropriate actions are not taken. taken by policy makers.

Women in Africa currently face massive constraints ranging from household or community cultural impositions to public and government policies that restrict their access to education and employment. This creates a major obstacle to the economic development and growth of the continent. If the culture of gender inequality and patriarchal domination is not addressed with the aim of creating more inclusive development in the private sector and greater participation in policy-making in the public sector, the situation will only get worse.

The future of Africa is inextricably linked to the future of women and girls on the continent. Harnessing the continent’s population growth and steering it in a positive direction will not only benefit Africa and Africans, but the rest of the world. If, however, entrenched power structures sink in their heels and leave women’s future bleak, a shadow will continue to hang over the entire continent.

Women and girls in Africa have faced social and employment discrimination and inequality. It not only hurt them, but also their families, their communities and the country as a whole. Poverty is a major problem in Africa and a driver of many other ills on the continent. Poverty will not be reduced and other problems will not be solved until Africa achieves true gender equality.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization that seeks to publish well-reasoned, policy-oriented articles on U.S. foreign policy and the national security. priorities.

About Bradley J. Bridges

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