Shining a spotlight on female health workers

Women are leading the global fight against disease. It’s time we gave them more recognition and funding, writes Diana Yousef, from the Global Institute for Disease Elimination.

In every corner of the world, women bear the social and economic brunt of debilitating diseases like malaria, river blindness, and trachoma, which can keep children out of school and prevent parents from working. It is also women who are out there on the frontline, fighting to control and eliminate these devastating conditions.

They are the beating heart of our health systems and make up more than two thirds of the health workforce globally.

Yet, so often, their voices are absent from key discussions and their critical role in disease elimination is underplayed and underfunded.

On International Women’s Day, the Global Institute for Disease Elimination (GLIDE) joins the global community in celebrating women and their critical roles as champions in the fight to eliminate neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), along with other diseases such as malaria and polio.  

Launched in 2019, GLIDE, is a new UAE-based institute set-up with $20m in funding from Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

It aims to accelerate global thinking and progress on disease elimination with a focus on malaria, polio, lymphatic filariasis, and river blindness. It does this by supporting the training of community health workers, many of whom are female, to catalyse disease elimination and eradication efforts in NTD endemic countries.

GLIDE believes women should be recognised as the change agents they are. Their role as champions in the fight to eliminate NTDs around the world must be celebrated and their expertise and experiences harnessed for the greater good.

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Women make up 70 percent of the health workforce globally. Photo: Getty Images.

"If we really want to reduce the burden of diseases like polio, malaria, and other NTDs, we need to do more to empower women and to recognise their critical work as change agents."

­­Female frontline community health workers have already contributed to the control and near eradication of several different NTDs and they form the base of the pyramid on which global health rests. How responses are funded should reflect this.

In Pakistan, for example, close to two thirds of the frontline workforce delivering polio vaccines are women. The success of immunisation in a country where vaccine hesitancy is an issue for cultural and religious reasons, often hinges on these women leveraging their networks to secure community buy-in. Indeed, studies have shown that public health interventions and immunization activities are most effective when delivered by women.

Yet, for all the celebration of women for their door-to-door polio vaccination work in Pakistan and Afghanistan, most remain volunteers and are largely missing from programme design and supervision roles.

Women also play a crucial role in preventing, controlling, and treating malaria and have driven the significant progress against the disease.

Their life-saving work includes: education about prevention; distribution of insecticide treated bed nets (and making sure they are properly hung); planning of indoor residual spraying; rapid diagnostic testing; and provision of antimalarial treatment.

An investment in these women and their work is an investment in reducing malaria mortality. It also helps reduce the socio-economic burden on women, who are typically left to care for the young and elderly when they have malaria, preventing them from working and studying.

However, despite women being the drivers of better global health outcomes, to-date, a large part of research and policy dialogues have overlooked their role; women remain sorely under-represented in leadership positions and receive disproportionally less funding than their male counterparts.

If we really want to reduce the burden of diseases like polio, malaria, and other NTDs, we need to do more to empower women and to recognise their critical work as change agents.

It is not enough to celebrate the achievements of women on International Women’s Day. It is time we amplify their voices by giving them their own seat at the table. - PA