March is Women’s History Month and thus a time to examine the role of women in bringing an end to malaria. For many years studies at the household level have told us that women often lack the financial independence or social support to make important decisions about malaria treatment and prevention for themselves and their children. Furthermore, as WHO notes, “Gender norms and values … influence the division of labour, leisure patterns, and sleeping arrangements may lead to different patterns of exposure to mosquitoes for men and women.” As part of the solution to these problems, it is important to look at women role models in the fight against the disease – at women making malaria history.
One of these role models is Tu Youyou who became one of three scientists to win the 2015 Nobel Prize for medicine. Her work of over 40 years was virtually unknown to the outside world until then, but her study of artemisinin medicinal compounds has saved the lives of millions.
Moving from the lab to the community one can find role models who have broken role stereotypes. A few years ago President’s Malaria Initiative-funded Africa Indoor Residual Spraying (AIRS) project drew out attention to Maimouna Sanogo as a woman making a difference. She helped protect people in her country from malaria through her work as a supervisor on AIRS indoor residual spraying project in Mali. The AIRS project reported that, “As a woman in a leadership role, Maimouna is a trailblazer. In Mali, only 37% of women participate in the labor force, while participation is nearly double among Malian men (70%).”
Women have played crucial leadership roles in national malaria programs. Dr TO Sofola as Director of Nigeria’s National Malaria Control Program (NMCP, now National Malaria Elimination Program) guided the transition of case management policy to the use of artemisinin-based combination therapy, oversaw planning for the first massive national LLIN campaign, guided development of the World Bank Booster Program support, helped strengthen Nigeria’s first Global Fund Malaria Grants, and brought state level malaria control programs into the national strategy process. Women have also led NMCPs in Malawi, Kenya and other countries.
Dr Rose Leke, Emeritus Professor of Immunology and Parasitology, Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, University of Yaounde, Cameroon, was one of six people to be given the Kwame Nkrumah Scientific Award for Women in 2011. Dr Leke explained the challenges facing women, “Science is still a challenging field for women to enter, and even more so in which to progress. At the university, I have seen many promising young women finish their studies and start jobs as assistants only to either get stuck in that position indefinitely or eventually leave to take care of their families. There just wasn’t the mentorship or financial support for research needed for them to be able to progress. It was an issue I really took to heart.” Therefore, Dr Leke and colleagues started the HIGHER Women Consortium in Cameroon. We provided training and mentorship to young women researchers.
Women in academics, research, government and front line programs have and continue to make history in the efforts to eliminate malaria. As Dr Leke’s example shows, these women leaders can make sure no one stands in the way of ensuring that the next generation of women scientists, managers and field workers make malaria history.