Statement: International Women’s Day 2023

Published: 8 March 2023

Embrace equity to defeat malaria, strengthen health systems and set a clear direction for Africa’s socio-economic transformation

Every year on this day, the world comes together to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women across all spheres of life. At the same time, we take stock of progress towards gender equality and take the opportunity to call for action to accelerate women’s inclusion in the political, social, and economic development agenda   that will aid Africa’s implementation of Agenda 2063, the Africa we want. That is why this year’s theme comes at an auspicious moment. For International Women’s Day and beyond, let us all fully #EmbraceEquity. Equity is not just a nice-to-have, it is a must-have. A focus on gender equity needs to be part of every society’s DNA.

The aim of the International Women’s Day (IWD) 2023 #EmbraceEquity campaign theme is to get the world talking about why equal opportunities are not enough. People start from different places, so true inclusion and belonging require equitable action. This is why we need to be gender transformative.

Every day, women across the world are confronted by discrimination and inequality. They face unequal treatment at home, at work, and in their communities – and are denied opportunities to lead, grow their intellectual capacities, and maximise their economic potential. The imbalance does not end there; in healthcare, exposure to diseases differs between women and men as does disease outcomes and impacts. Similarly, their experience of health systems may also differ, with women often facing greater barriers. Addressing this persistence of inequalities that curtails the ability of women to thrive socially and economically requires stronger resolve from men and women alike as well as all stakeholders to truly move the world towards a gender-equitable world, one that is diverse, and inclusive.

Studies show that while men and women equally feel the impact of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), women face higher risks of infection and suffer the consequences disproportionately because of their already vulnerable position in society. Gender norms fuel these differences. Women and young girls face a higher risk of developing certain NTDs such as schistosomiasis owing to their customary roles in water collection and household hygiene, where they are exposed to contaminated water. Similarly, girls and women are more likely to drop out of school or leave their economic engagements to look after loved ones suffering from NTDs.

Malaria’s impact on women cannot be overemphasized. Expectant women in particular face a higher risk from malaria infection due to reduced immunity. The deadly disease exposes them to further complications related to reproductive, maternal, and neonatal health such as foetal loss, stillbirth, premature delivery, and low-birthweight infants. We must therefore strengthen access to existing tools such as Insecticide Treated Nets, Intermittent Preventive Treatment in pregnancy and case management. We must significantly improve and support the agenda around women and health and more particularly NTDs and malaria.

Through the ALMA scorecards for accountability and action, the African Leaders Malaria Alliance (ALMA) has for over a decade strived to contribute to this by helping countries track national progress not only in malaria and NTDs but also on Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH), nutrition and community health. With a broad range of indicators, the tools are critical in identifying barriers, helping increase accountability and enhancing decision-making. More importantly, the tools are instrumental in improving strategies and interventions around access to healthcare among the most vulnerable populations such as women. By working together and strengthening action in bridging the gender gap in health, we can #EmbraceEquity for women making society more inclusive and productive. For example, by increasing coverage of IPTp3 to 90% of all pregnant women, an additional 265 000 low birthweights would be averted. Given that low birthweight is a strong risk factor for neonatal and childhood mortality, averting a substantial number of low birthweights will save many lives.

Ending malaria is a major pathway for pandemic preparedness and response. We cannot afford backtracking; talking about rolling back malaria for over two decades will not work in the age of pandemics. Let us end malaria and be pacesetters in ensuring a disease-free world and a solid foundation for economic development.