Dr Agnes Binagwaho, Vice Chancellor, University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) in Kigali, said during her talk on the third day of Africa Health 2021 that gender equity should be on the agenda for humanity.
“It's a call for all people of good soul and good will to continue to fight for gender equity. It's bigger than fighting for gender equality; sometimes it's not even 50/50, sometimes it's 60 for girls because they start so far,” she said during a session on how COVID-19 has affected women, Women at the front lines - key to healthcare sector recovery & tackling social disparities.
A Rwandan paediatrician, Dr Binagwaho described returning to her home country two years after the 1994 genocide.
“When I went back, I was shocked - the healthcare sector was destroyed in the genocide. The morale of the people was down,” she said.
She began providing clinical care in the Rwandan public sector, also co-founding the UGHE, an initiative of non-profit healthcare organisation Partners In Health.
UGHE focuses on changing how healthcare is delivered by training global health professionals to deliver more equitable quality health services for all.
“When I was a child, I was allowed to be curious, and this cultivated my interest in learning more,” she said, commenting on how she was able to reach her current position as a woman.
Widening inequities under COVID-19
During her talk, Dr Binagwaho said that COVID-19 had exacerbated existing inequities among the population.
She said that there were inequities in access to education, leadership, and employment, all linked to cultural perspectives still viewing women as secondary players in society.
“In Africa we only have 28 percent of doctors that are women,” she said, revealing also that nurses were mostly women.
“Women have been more exposed to Covid than men. And we know now that Africa was less served for PPE. We have all this inequality in access to tools to protect our workers,” she added.
“With fewer tools to protect our health workers, and more women in the frontline, of course our women suffered more than men,” she explained further.
Dr Binagwaho highlighted several initiatives across Africa to compensate and mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on women, especially in matters relating to violence against women.
Examples included South Africa courts prioritising cases of women violence; in Kenya, women were better supported with cash within the economic scheme; and in Nigeria, an innovation scheme was launched to create jobs for women and youth.
Dr Binagwaho emphasised that female empowerment should not be exclusive to COVID-19. “It's something we could have done before Covid and during Covid, and should do after Covid,” she affirmed.
She unveiled how this is addressed by UGHE.
“We systemically recruit 70 percent of females. We go for equity. We take 70 percent as a call for action,” she said, elaborating further that not all the 70 percent will graduate from the university. In fact, most will not, and that is due to cultural norms.
Through the university, the girls will receive advice through a mentorship programme.
“We need to monitor girls and make available a good environment, because they have fewer advantages than boys. We go and visit their homes and explain that they need to study ‘this’ number of hours if they wish to succeed,” she said. “So we monitor them. Girls need more mentoring.”