women's empowerment begins with health

By: Results Canada Published: 08/03/2024

Today, on International Women’s Day, Dr. Ingrid Estelle Tefang is busy supporting Nigerian refugee women in Northern Cameroon. These women are fleeing armed violence or are displaced by more insidious violence – that of inflation or climate change and related disasters that destroyed their crops. They arrive at the Minawao camp – many on foot, many without food, and many with very little but their children on their backs – seeking safety and sustenance.

Worldwide, at least two-thirds of women and adolescent girls – over a billion people – suffer from undernutrition, anemia, or micronutrient deficiencies. This puts them at greater risk of developing diseases, and girls and women face more barriers in accessing health information and lifesaving services like immunization than men. Social and cultural norms, and the unequal status of women in many societies, can lead to girls’ health receiving the least priority and prevent mothers from being able to take their children to get vaccinated. This double jeopardy of disproportionately suffering from malnutrition and not having equal access to health care perpetuates a cycle that prevent women and girls from reaching their potential.

Canadian policies recognize that by supporting the needs of women and girls, including their healthcare, we can effectively fight poverty and global instability. Recent research shows that aid supporting health equity, and gender equality allow countries affected by conflict and instability to move toward peace. Furthermore, ignoring the gender health gap costs the global economy $1 trillion a year!

Canada's Feminist International Assistance Policy cemented our country's reputation as an ally of women's and children's rights. Our commitment towards women’s health crosses party lines, as demonstrated by the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health launched by the previous Conservative party-led government. However, women and children are bearing the brunt of multiple crises and we can and must step up and do more.

In recent years, the international cooperation sector has recognized the need to support solutions rooted in national realities, and to transfer power to affected communities and their governments. From a feminist perspective, this means listening to affected women and dismantling power inequalities by actively supporting those who respond to their needs.

According to Dr Tefang, one effective solution is to support multilateral initiatives working on the ground in global health. Agencies such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Global Financing Facility, and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative can act as catalysts, supporting local capacity- building, national investment, and breaking down gender barriers to strengthen health systems.

More specifically, she explains that funding to proven mechanisms like Gavi, can support vaccination for Human papillomavirus (HPV) – which causes the greatest risk of cervical cancer – and the training of healthcare workers to combat misinformation. In addition, Cameroon recently became the first country to integrate the vaccine for malaria, which affects women, particularly during pregnancy, and is associated with maternal anemia, into its routine program. With Gavi's support, many other countries will be able to curb the spread of this deadly disease.

Another intervention, Vitamin A supplementation, is important because when it is administered to young children or their mothers during breastfeeding, it helps to protect vision and strengthens immune systems. What's more, as Dr Tefang has found in her area of intervention, it is effective to screen for malnutrition during vaccination sessions. This integration approach allows women to access two essential services at once, a game-changer for those who live in hard-to-reach or underserved communities.

Canada’s ability to deliver on its commitments will be reflected in the upcoming Federal budget to be release in mid-April. In the coming year, Canada will have several opportunities to support nutrition and immunization for women and their children:

  • A few years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that Canada would support the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s fight until the end. With Canada’s current pledge now operationalized, it’s time to renew our contribution and help achieve this goal. Polio is one of those diseases which, although it affects boys as much as girls, is intrinsically linked to gender. Structural obstacles can prevent women and girls from benefiting to an equitable access to vaccines, information and health care. 
  • In 2024, the International Development Association (IDA), the arm of the World Bank that provides funding for the world’s lowest income countries, will be looking to fundraise. Canada can leverage its leadership at the World Bank to ensure that this funding prioritizes nutrition and early childhood development. 
  • Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, will launch its case for investment, which will support the development and roll-out of new vaccines, including for HPV and malaria. Canada has an opportunity to build on its legacy and ensure its investment in this partnership is ambitious.  
  • Finally, in early 2025, the Nutrition 4 Growth (N4G) Summit will be an occasion for Canada to make both financial and political commitments to support high-impact interventions against malnutrition, like the Global Financing Facility for Women, Children and Adolescents (GFF) and the Child Nutrition Fund (CNF). The GFF is a World Bank-hosted partnership that supports local investments and long-term commitment to the health of women and youth, while the CNF helps countries accelerate their efforts to eliminate child wasting, the deadliest form of malnutrition. 

International Women's Day shouldn't be the only time we show solidarity with our sisters around the world. At a time when our world is marked by multiple crises, such as those experienced by the women of Minawao, it is countries like Canada that have the power to put equality into practice.

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