To improve access to vaccination, let’s reduce gender inequalities

Antoinette Sassou-N’Guesso, First Lady of the Republic of Congo and President of the Organization of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD), shares her thoughts on the importance of always keeping women’s rights in sight to improve health in Africa.

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H.E. Madame Antoinette Tchibota Sassou-Nguesso, First Lady of the Republic of Congo, President of the Organization of African First Ladies for Development. Credit: OPDAD
 

 

In March 2022 we celebrated Women’s Month. For the institution that I chair, the Organization of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD), this was an opportunity to once again pay tribute to all those who have been on the frontline over the past two years against the COVID-19 pandemic: from Brazzaville to Harare, from Dakar to Addis Ababa, scientists, caregivers, coordinators, mothers and daughters who have protected us and who have been severely affected by COVID-19.

it is necessary to identify and eliminate the various obstacles that have a negative impact on the immunisation of zero-dose or under-vaccinated children, who represent up to one in ten children in Gavi-supported countries.

Of course, just because the month of March has come to an end, this does not mean that we must eliminate gender issues from our thoughts and actions, especially when it comes to health. The coming of African Vaccination Week, at the same time as World Vaccination Week – which will take place at the end of April – gives us a new opportunity to affirm that everyone, every child, every woman, has the right to be protected against preventable diseases thanks to vaccines: to live, as the theme of this awareness week expresses, a long, healthy life.

Empowering women and girls for better health

The pandemic that the world has experienced for the past couple of years has reminded us of this: gender and health interact in very clear ways.

We, the First Ladies of Africa, are very well placed to know this, and have been for a long time: in 20 years of existence, our organisation has witnessed the devastation that other epidemics, long before COVID-19, have inflicted on women and girls in Africa. This is the case of HIV/AIDS, which continues, unfortunately, to cost lives on our continent, especially those of women. Young women aged 15 to 22 account for up to 66% of new infections in some regions. This disparity has terrible consequences for future generations, since more than half of the children born to mothers carrying the virus will have it themselves.

Gavi/2021/Christophe Da Silva
Gavi/2021/Christophe Da Silva

With regard to protection against infectious diseases, we also better understand the inequalities that exist when we take into account the key factor of gender. It is an analysis that we share with our international partners, including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Moving towards the empowerment of women and girls is not just a question of health: it is the fifth sustainable development goal, which is particularly close to our hearts.

As the United Nations Gender Development Index shows, immunisation coverage is better in more equal countries. Sexism can reduce children’s chances of being vaccinated, by preventing parents’ access to vaccination services. For all children - boys and girls - to have access to the vaccines that will protect them against serious diseases such as measles, poliomyelitis or cholera, it is imperative that we work for gender equality.

Reaching zero-dose and under-vaccinated children

For this, it is necessary to identify and eliminate the various obstacles that have a negative impact on the immunisation of zero-dose or under-vaccinated children, who represent up to one in ten children in Gavi-supported countries. These obstacles are numerous: women’s lack of access to household financial resources, which can limit the means of paying for the indirect costs of vaccination; the lack of education of mothers; the unequal distribution of tasks in the family which distracts the father from caring for children, including vaccinations; security and mobility issues that can discourage women, especially those with young children, from travelling to health facilities. It is a long-term task, which concerns the whole of society.

Gavi/2021/Christophe Da Silva
Gavi/2021/Christophe Da Silva

HPV Vaccine Support

We welcome Gavi’s support for a vaccine that specifically protects the health of women and girls: the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.

HPV is the main cause of cervical cancer. Africa is extremely affected by this scourge, since more than 85% of cervical cancer deaths occur in developing countries where, very often, women do not have access to screening or treatment.

The vaccine, which needs to be administered before exposure to the virus, has the potential to reduce cervical cancer rates by nearly 90%. But this can only be achieved through vaccinating our daughters, prioritising this vaccine and more generally committing resources to the health of women and girls.

Let’s not only vaccinate our daughters against HPV, but also our sons: because they can be carriers of the virus and transmit it without knowing it, and can also develop cancers due to the human papillomavirus. The efficacy and safety of this vaccine have been demonstrated in both men and women.

Gender equality is everyone’s business

We have to understand that we must all be mobilised to improve the health conditions of women and girls on our continent. To the men who read this post, you have your place in this fight: it is with you that we will win it. We owe it to future generations. No one should be left behind.

Let us join forces to break down barriers to access to vaccination, to make Africa a continent with healthy and empowered children, young people and women. This is OAFLAD's raison d’être and we, the First Ladies of Africa, through our unique position and expertise, will continue to foster awareness in the areas of gender and health with the valuable support of Gavi and our other partners.