Malaria is all around us. Many of us know someone who has had malaria or have experienced the symptoms ourselves. I recently dealt with it at home when my daughter fell sick with malaria, and as a physician, I see countless patients and their children struggling with the disease. But despite malaria’s seemingly universal nature, one thing I have noticed over the years is that malaria has a disproportionate effect on women.
Women are at highest risk during pregnancy, which can lead to severe complications for mothers and their babies. In Nigeria, the impact is devastating: malaria is responsible for 11 percent of all maternal deaths, in part because less than one in five pregnant women receive the recommended dose of lifesaving preventative treatment.
Our social structures exacerbate the challenges women face in protecting themselves from malaria. Women often lack access to the same resources as men, making it harder to afford preventative measures or malaria treatment. Many women do not have the education they need to fully understand malaria’s risks. As a result, too many women are not in the position to seek appropriate care when they or their children get sick.
All of these factors contribute to a vicious cycle that holds women back and allows malaria to persist. When women spend their income on malaria treatments, or miss work to care for themselves or a sick child, they have fewer resources to provide other necessities for their families – especially if they are the sole source of income. As women’s financial security falters, they have a harder time keeping their families healthy, making them more susceptible to infectious diseases like malaria.
We can end malaria in Nigeria if we make women a priority.
There are encouraging signs that we’re moving in the right direction. Several states offer free maternal and child health services and use antenatal clinics to distribute free insecticide-treated bed nets and preventative treatments. For women who can’t reach these clinics, many community-based organizations send volunteers door-to-door to help women get the services they need. Some malaria control programs collect comprehensive data on malaria’s burden on pregnant women.
This has to be the norm, not the exception.
We need local, regional and national strategies designed specifically to address women’s risks. This means tailoring awareness campaigns to emphasize malaria’s impacts on women and offer information on preventative measures and treatment options. These campaigns must also reach men, who can help their wives, mothers and sisters access care. Collecting wide-ranging data on malaria’s burden on all women – not just pregnant women – will ensure that these strategies are well-informed and address the various factors that drive women’s health decisions.
But it’s not enough to focus on the health-seeking behaviours of individuals. To address the root causes of malaria’s burden in our country, we also need to make sure that women don’t spiral into poverty when they or their children get sick. Our political leaders should prioritize making malaria interventions more affordable through financial programs that are geared toward women. Also, social safety nets, legal reforms and employment programs can help account for lost livelihood due to malaria illness.
Ultimately, developing these women-centric programs will require involving women in the design and implementation of malaria interventions in their communities. Women have insights into their specific barriers to care and are better prepared to create programs that reflect the intricacies of their everyday realities. As more women are empowered to step into leadership positions, these perspectives will help create more nuanced programs that work for them.
Putting women at the forefront of Nigeria’s malaria effort will go a long way toward placing national malaria elimination within our grasp. It will also yield impressive results for women’s standing in society. Reducing the burden of malaria would allow more women to complete school, remain in the workforce and participate in governance or decision-making – increasing their overall economic, social and political empowerment.
I want to see a future where my daughters can thrive. That future is irrevocably tied to the ability of all women in Nigeria to reach their full potential. Let’s not allow malaria to jeopardize it.
—Sa’id is a physician from Kaduna and a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology