Bringing womens health issues to the forefront in China and Africa

by Reenat Sinay | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 7 December 2011 16:04 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

HIV orphans and mosquito nets are what come to most people's minds when they think of health problems in Africa. But widespread women's health problems like fistulas, gender based violence and lack of access to contraceptives lurk just below the surface of public awareness.

HIV orphans and mosquito nets are what come to most people’s minds when they think of health problems in Africa. But widespread women’s health problems like fistulas, gender based violence and lack of access to contraceptives lurk just below the surface of public awareness. These were some of the issues discussed in October’s GBC Women’s Health Reporting course in Johannesburg.

Likewise, last month’s Health Reporting course in Beijing, though not specifically focused on women’s health, raised the issue of a shortage of media coverage on women’s issues in China.

But what exactly is the connection between China and Africa, you might ask?

As China gains prominence on the global stage, it has forged ties with many African countries in trade, aid, and health initiatives among other things. As in many African cultures, in China it is believed that women should keep their health problems private, thereby condemning them to suffer in silence and deterring those who need medical care from seeking it, according to a Chinese participant on our Beijing course.

As China and Africa grow closer together, their joint lack of women’s health reporting becomes glaringly obvious, leaving their women open to the dangers of ignorance and lack of support.

In Africa, many people, including women, find talking about issues like female genital mutilation and rape very uncomfortable, and many words relating to women’s problems are taboo, which deters reporters from writing about them. Female reporters in general are few, and they often struggle to pitch women’s health stories to their editors when matched up with what are considered more important stories, according to female participants on our Johannesburg course.

The course raised awareness of the seriousness of certain issues that need to be addressed in the local media. One participant, Patience Ogbo from Nigeria, highlighted gender based violence as a growing problem when she told the story of a university student whose rape was videotaped and then put on YouTube.

According to another participant, Salma Maro from Kenya, “the biggest problem in Mombasa is the access to reproductive health services; clinics are far and wide, and women travel great distances to reach them.”

This is also a major problem in parts of China, according to Thomson Reuters Foundation consultant Bunyuen Wong, who claims, “China is not one country.”

He cites the disparity between the wealthy eastern provinces and cities, which enjoy a relatively high level of healthcare, and the western rural provinces and the women of those areas whose “health care is primitive in comparison to the east.”

Wong explains that medical care in rural areas is through a co-op system, which means that care is directly relative to the wealth of the village, so poorer villages have much less resources. Like in many areas of Africa, clinics are very far away, and there might not be professional or properly trained medical workers, meaning that people must travel very far to get proper medical care at a county level.

Other major issues in China include high rates of abortion among teenage girls. Chinese girls prefer getting an abortion to the shame of having a baby while unmarried. However, the high rate of abortions, and therefore of teenage sex, means that girls are not getting the sexual education required and do not understand the importance of using contraceptives.

“Sex education in schools has just recently started,” says Wong. “Before, it was taboo, but a lot of teachers still don’t know how to talk about it.”

These are just some of the many stories out there that need to be told. In both Africa and China, leaving important women’s health issues buried beneath cultural taboos keep the public ignorant and these problems neglected in society.

As course participant Prossy Kawala from Uganda put it, “nothing is embarrassing when it comes to saving lives.”