Leveraging the Power of African Women Leaders to Transform Maternal and Child Health in Africa

Last week, the Forbes Woman Leading Women Summit in Durban South Africa brought together 500 top influential women leaders from all over Africa. Phenomenal women from East, West, and Southern Africa representing government, the private sector, science, and technology convened. There were Chief Executive Officers (CEOs), members of parliament, scientists, thought leaders, and even a fashion icon. The summit held on the International Women’s day covered critical topics in leading change, business and entrepreneurship, science, and protecting our environment.

Coming from the health sector, I was struck by the intensity of the passion and the determination in the room. I was struck by the sheer power in the room not only in numbers; there was undeniable economic power, political power, and knowledge. It dawned on me that the collective power of African Women leaders is often ignored not only by others, but also by ourselves.

Africa is leading the way in terms of achieving gender parity in politics: 61% of members of parliament in Rwanda are women. In 2018, Ethiopia welcomed its first woman president — a feat yet to be achieved by mature democracies such as the United States of America. Within the United Nations system, Dr Vera Songwe, a Cameroonian Economist, is Africa’s first female head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Amina Mohammed from Nigeria is the Deputy Secretary General. The World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa is led by Dr Matshidiso Moeti, a physician and public health specialist from Botswana. The continent boasts several women ministers of health including Rwanda’s Dr Diane Gashumba and Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health Sicily Kariuki.

In terms of economic power, there are exceptional women CEOs and entrepreneurs in the continent. Folorunsho Alakija from Nigeria is one of the wealthiest people in Africa with an estimated net worth of more than 2 billion dollars. Bethlehem Alemu of Ethiopia has grown her business to be one of the largest footwear companies in the world.

It is time we women leaders of the continent recognized and leveraged the power of our formidable collective force. It is exactly this type of collective force that is necessary when dealing with intractable challenges in the continent such as our women’s and children’s lack of access to healthcare. Who else can better understand our fellow women and our children? If we do not step up to expand health services to women and children in the continent — who will? More than 60% of all maternal deaths in the world occur in Africa (1). Sierra Leone has the highest maternal mortality in the world at 1360 maternal deaths/100'000 population (1). More than 90% of our children in need of surgical services are not getting it because of poverty, the lack of awareness, and a health system that is understaffed and lacking in equipment and infrastructure. Together, we have the financial resources, the knowledge, and the unprecedented political clout — let us collectively transform the health of the women and children in our continent. If we do not do it — I do not know who else will with the same understanding, empathy, and commitment to long term and sustainable solutions.

1. World Bank (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/sh.sta.mmrt)

Humanitarian surgeon/surgical systems specialist/ Founding Director — Surgical Systems Research Group

Humanitarian surgeon/surgical systems specialist/ Founding Director — Surgical Systems Research Group