The African Woman: A Priority in Medicine?

Researchers link preparation of smoked fish to lung diseases! For my fellow fanatics, this recent article in The Guardian will undoubtedly be a disheartening revelation of the hidden cost behind the savory goodness that is smoked fish. My initial thoughts after reading the title were admittedly, selfish. My mind skipped through the numerous pulmonopathies that I have encountered during my first year in medical school. I ranked the diseases in order of severity, hoping that the punishment for my affair with smoked fish would be selected from the bottom of the list. As I read further, I soon realized that I was not the subject of article. In this case, the unfortunate victims of lung disease are the manufacturers of smoked fish – predominantly women (“manufacturers” because the things that these women do to smoked fish are nothing short of magical). The Togo-based study suggests that these women who are “constantly exposed to smoke, heat and burns, during the process are at high risk of developing chronic chest and respiratory infections or disease.”

As I sympathized with the women from the article, my thoughts led me to the broader topics of feminism and the empowerment of women. March 8, 2010 was the 100th anniversary of International Women’s day, a global celebration of the political, economic and social achievements of women. Using the Togolese fish smokers as a take-off point, I thought about women in Africa and what I believed was an on-going struggle to empower them. My mental exercise soon turned into a “Google” exercise as I realized the inadequacies of my knowledge base about African women. In the course of my search, I stumbled upon an inspiring article: Empower Women to Realize the African Dream written by Obiageli Ezekwesili, the World Bank Vice President for the Africa region. From the piece, it’s clear that the African woman has come a long way over the last few decades. Progress is evident in the worlds of business, politics, education and medicine. However, as Mrs. Ezekwesili reminds us, “the feminization of poverty still remains acute.” Women bear the brunt of the African situation, standing at the front line in wars against malnutrition, overpopulation and discrimination. Equality and gender issues have seen some improvement, but we still have a long way to go.

Women in Nigeria proudly show a hand-painted banner for peace

Of Mrs. Ezekwesili’s points, I was struck most considerably by those that highlight the things medicine is NOT doing for our women. “One in 20 girls born today in Angola, Mozambique, Liberia and Sierra Leone will die in childbirth. An African woman is 25 times more likely to die during labor than a European woman […]; three young women are infected with HIV/AIDS for every young man in Africa; [and] girls still face genital mutilation in 28 African countries.” Like most others, the medical sector is doing a miserable job as regards protecting and providing for our women. I’m in no position to criticize the field, or to recommend things that we can do to advance women’s rights in Africa, but I do know that we can do much better. So even as we remember International Women’s Day and take our hats off to the women who make life worth it, I ask that we make it a priority to empower the women of Africa through medicine. Our mothers, wives, daughters, sisters – our women – are our “hope, strength and opportunity.” Let’s play our part to make sure they are always treated as such.

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