WOMEN’S HEALTH MATTERS: LETTING THE CAT OUT OF THE BAG!

Women access sexual and reproductive health service during May 28 celebrations in Mombasa Kenya

Women access sexual and reproductive health service during May 28 celebrations in Mombasa Kenya

I always ask myself, all these well-meaning advocacy strategies, action plans and endless conversations on improving status of women as part of achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment, what exactly are we speaking about. This could well be a dissertation for a PhD but, I will narrow my arguments and discussions to women’s health. For people to participate and contribute meaningfully to development, they have to be healthy. That goes for women and girls too. Question begs….what entails women’s health and especially now and for the longest time where women’s bodies, health and autonomy have topped political discussions at all levels

The World Health Organization defines health as not the lack of disease but complete physical, mental & social well-being. I might also add that before wrapping up the definition we must also add that women’s health must fundamentally discuss access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information. Lets start with the basics, as we continue to emphasize the need for availing equal opportunities for boys and girls in our efforts to attain gender parity, one thing is clear girls must have access to basic facilities. Basic facilities include sanitation and hygiene facilities during menstruation and clean ablution facilities to ensure girls are safe and healthy from preventable diseases. Averagely girls miss school and are sometimes forced into sex work to find money to buy menstruation protection, ultimately this has an impact on their retention and transition within the education system.

When we discuss women’s health, most governments and investors seem to take interest when it’s about reproductive health, and even then the discussion instrumentalizes women completely missing the point. Before I get all wound up about the instrumentalization bit of it, lets discuss scope…women’s health just like WHO defines includes their social, psychological and mental health.  For women who are pregnant, nursing and adolescent girls, nutrition is an important aspect of their health. This is especially if we are to combat maternal mortality from a comprehensive angle. Next goes psychological health, at all times women’s psychological and mental health should be taken into account. This is because of the negative ripple effects that might come from being mentally unhealthy where girls and women who suffer mental health are exposed to violence.

According to statistics by UN Women, 1 in 3 women will experience violence in her life time. This is gory to say the least and has far reaching implications on women’s health. Violence against Women disempowers women and curtails their contribution to society. This includes hindering their access to health which is a basic right. Women who experience violence are sometimes forced to seek spousal consent to access contraceptive services and other basic health services. Aside from the curtailed autonomy regarding their individual health, they suffer mentally and psychologically. Violence against women breeds ground for perpetuation of negative masculinities and other negative social constructs surrounding advancement of women’s agency. We must work towards strengthening systems to respond to cases of sexual violence including immediate responses. This include comprehensive packages that include; forensic evidence collection, emergency contraception, PEP, rape kits and psychological; support among others. This is crucial in boosting women and girls confidence in health systems that should respond to their health needs

Harmful social and traditional practices also affect women’s health. Abortion stigma which happens at all levels including in the form of institutional violence through negative service provider attitudes affects women’s access to their reproductive health and rights. Women who will avoid seeking safe abortion services because of stigma will seek unsafe abortions which in countries such as mine contribute to a third of all maternal deaths.  Women and girls have died during female genital mutilation not to mention those who die later and get infected with HIV. FGM also contributes to maternal deaths especially through fistula which is a common occurrence amongst girls who are victims of child marriage; one of components of the bloodcurdling harmful practices cocktail. Child marriage apart from putting girls health at risk, has other far reaching negative ripple effects such as infant mortality where girls who barely have any education are expected to raise healthy children.

Women’s health is a complex subject that denotes the interconnectedness of women and girls lives. We must at all times see women beyond their reproductive functions;  denial of services, restrictive laws on women’s access to certain services such as spousal and legal consent for adolescent girls and young women to access commodities and services is a human rights violation. Women and girls access to health insurance limits cover to only certain aspects of their health..does this mean we need to sensitize the insurance companies on the scope of women’s health?? Statistics also indicate that disparities and inequalities that characterize access to health services mostly affect women. Women and girls living in conflict situations, women and girls living with disabilities, women living with with HIV, lesbian, bisexual, trans and intersex women, rural women amongst other.

We must then not turn a blind eye to institutional violence or violation of women’s health rights but add our voice to combat the social injustice for what it is. Thomas Sankara put it very well; The revolution and women’s liberation go together. We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It’s a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky. Revamping women’s Health is a crucial component of the revolution

The cat is out of the bag on women’s health, now lets work hard to feed the cat.

Catherine is a Mandela Fellow 2016, Women Deliver Young Leader and member of Youth RISE International working group. Catherine is a passionate young African feminist activist with over 7 years of experience in advancing gender equality, youth development and sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of sustainable development through movement building, digital and social media, policy advocacy and capacity building for young women and adolescents girls. Catherine is currently Deputy Director at Dandelion Kenya, and sits on the SDGs Kenya Forum coordination committee. Catherine has engaged with various global and regional policy processes such as ICPD Beyond 2014 review, Beijing +20 and the post 2015 development agenda. She co-authored the article ‘Leave No One Behind; Will African Women be left behind in the post 2015 development agenda ,an article published on the East African Business Monthly in February 2015. Catherine launched the #SRHRDialogues, an online advocacy and awareness raising platform on SRHR and #YAFDialogues, an online platform anticipated to be a permanent mobilizing platforms borne out of an African feminist dialogue 2015 in Accra. Follow her on Twitter: @catherinenyamb1