African Women in Health Emergencies: Vulnerability and Resilience

Updated: May 19, 2020

By: Philomène Coumba Tine

Health emergencies are events that compromise health and are usually accompanied by humanitarian disasters and social consequences. Health emergencies such as the AIDS, Ebola, influenza, and plague epidemics among others, continue to raise many questions in West Africa societies, and particularly in Senegal. These emergencies require rapid and specific responses, guided to socio-epidemiological research, and effective public health interventions. During a health emergency, all groups of the population find themselves affected. However, many studies show that these disasters can reinforce and increase gender inequalities within societies, and therefore disproportionately affect women.

In most African contexts, social hierarchies are based on gender and age. It should be noted that in the majority of African societies, men are assigned leadership positions and are responsible for all important decision-making tasks. However, the majority of these societies are largely matrilineal. This paradox contributes to producing gender inequalities. These are manifested in many ways, in education, in health, and even in investments for gender equality.

Because of gender-specific unfavorable socioeconomic and cultural conditions, gender roles that women face and are assigned, health emergencies are usually harder on women. For example, during the Ebola outbreak, researchers found that differences in exposure between men and women were an important factor in the transmission of the Ebola virus. Women play a fundamental role; they are often responsible for household chores, maintaining the environment and generally providing care in the event of illness (Fawole et al, 2016). In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, to date, women account for 62% (280/450) of all infected cases (WHO, 2019). Zylberman also also originally reported in a study that pregnant women were affected by excess mortality during influenza pandemics (1918, 1957, 2009) (Zylberman, 2012).

Although women in Africa are generally more vulnerable during health emergencies, they have also demonstrated undying resilience in the face of the aftermath. However, their contributions to disaster risk-reduction are often omitted and rendered invisible. An ECOWAS study on sanitation and water originally stated that women are excluded from decision-making and program implementation processes (Fall & al) and that their needs are not taken into account in planning public policies related to sanitation. Despite the growing efforts to promote gender equality worldwide, marginalization of African women’s experiences, efforts, and needs is still prevalent.

At the regional level, the Maputo Protocol ensures the inclusion of women in all key areas and most African countries generated constitutions or basic laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex. However, there is a significant gap between the gender equality interventions and the reality of African women’s experiences (AU, 2018). This situation of inequity manifests itself in a lack of capacity to implement systematic integration of a gender perspective in disaster management. Even today, the notion of gender must focus above all on emphasizing women's experiences, needs, skills and abilities, especially in terms of risk management, and should question women’s representation solely as victims in this respect.

Thus, it is essential for women to be equitably represented in decision-making platforms, policies and programs for disaster risk reduction and management. In Senegal, the association "Women Actions and Development" carries out significant activities in the prevention and management of disaster risks in families. By acting particularly in the areas of governance, economic and social planning, the association has demonstrated that these women made a decisive contribution to sustainable development (Soumaré, 2012).

In conclusion, promoting gender equality and integrating gender in all stages of development policies and programs is capable of contributing to the reduction of health disasters, and to increasing the sustainability of livelihoods in African communities (UNDP et al, 2009).


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