IWD23: Digital Technology Could Close Women’s Health Gaps, But Not All Women
Social media platforms, women’s blogs and period-tracking apps present opportunities for women to understand gender-specific conditions. In Nigeria, however, many factors still limit women’s access to the internet and healthcare.
Years before Farida*, 20, was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, known as ‘PCOS’, she had read, heard, and seen women’s experiences with it on the internet.
Their symptoms matched hers; the irregular menstrual cycle, the excessive body hair even on the chin, and the unrelenting acne on her face and chest. It was then she decided to see a gynaecologist.
“After a series of blood tests and scans, I was told I had PCOS and was prone to diabetes,” Farida stated.
In recent times, digital technology has been helping more women access adequate health care globally. This includes sexual and reproductive health. Social media platforms, blogs and period-tracking apps have enabled women to understand their bodies and to know when to seek medical help without fear or shame.
“The digital age represents an unprecedented opportunity to eliminate all forms of disparity and inequality,” the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality (UNWomen) says.
In line with this, ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality’ was chosen as this year’s theme for the International Women’s Day.
Yet, in developing countries like Nigeria, only half of the country’s population use the internet. Many women who do not own smartphones or do not have access to the internet have been disproportionately left out of such innovations, especially those that relate to their reproductive well-being.
Women who have been displaced from their homes and currently live in harsh conditions would rather find ways to ease their hardship and get more money to feed themselves and their families.
Experiences of displaced women beyond digital technologies
Yeast infections, medically known as Vaginal Candidiasis, is one of the most common reproductive health problems that affect displaced women in camp and camp-like settings in Nigeria’s northeast.
Apart from the unsanitary living conditions that are accompanied by the absence of adequate water and sanitation hygiene facilities, the lack of nutritious food makes these infections more septic. In the same way, it determines the medical health-seeking behaviour of those infected.
In Aug. 2022, Maryam Abba, a 37-year-old displaced woman in Adamawa state, northeast Nigeria, told HumAngle how she has been struggling with itching and burning sensations in her vagina.
“Whenever it starts, I have to leave everything I am doing and go to my tent to soothe it,” she says, describing it as too much to bear.
The women in the camp who share the same symptoms refer to it as ‘toilet infection’ because they believe they got it from the camp’s toilets. But Dr Ishak Musa, a gynaecologist at a General Hospital in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, says it is usually contracted through contact, for instance when women share clothing such as underwear.
But he says, displaced women who face extreme hunger could have weakened immune systems, which makes them prone to such infections when using overcrowded and unsanitary toilets.
Many women in the camp who have the same experiences feel embarrassed asking for medication or see it as exposing their private business.
While the treatment of yeast infection is basic and can be done within a week through using antifungal medications, Maryam does not have access to adequate care. Even when she does it remains unaffordable for her.
She says her daily income from the menial jobs she gets is also affected by the itching she feels. However, she adds that she would rather use the money she earns to feed herself and her children than go to a clinic.
She tells HumAngle she uses potash, a potassium-rich salt, to soothe the pain.
But Dr Musa says this could actually make things worse, causing their reproductive health to further deteriorate.
Access to digital technology is as limited as access to health care.
After Farida* was diagnosed with PCOS, she began to make life adjustments that made her experience with the condition less severe. She also changed her diet to counter her susceptibility to diabetes, as her gynaecologist had advised.
Farida* is a university student in her second year of studying human anatomy. Although her health-seeking behaviour was influenced by her digital literacy, which aided early diagnosis of the condition, many Nigerian women do not have such advantages.
In 2022, a Centre for Information, Technology and Development (CITAD) revealed that about 60 per cent of women in northern Nigeria are less likely to have access to the internet compared to men.
According to the centre, the number of women who do not have access to the internet makes them “technologically and socially disadvantaged compared to their male counterparts.”
Apart from the general gender disparity between men and women in the region, it noted that in Bauchi state, in the northeast, and Kano state, in the northwest, factors like inadequate infrastructure, computer illiteracy, and bad perception about the internet hinder women from being digitally inclusive.
Women’s and girls’ access to adequate health interventions have also been full of obstacles beyond digital inclusion. Factors such as cost, poor health literacy, perceived negative attitude of health workers, and, in some instances, a lack of health professionals that render gender-specific services continue to create gaps in women’s health care.
International Women’s Day is a global celebration observed on March 8 annually to amplify women’s rights movement, the need for gender equality and advocate against sexual and gender based violence, amongst other issues.
This year, the United Nations is advocating for the need for digital inclusion for women and girls. In a statement the UNWomen stated that, “growing inequalities are becoming increasingly evident in the context of digital skills and access to technologies, with women being left behind as the result of this digital gender divide.”
The theme ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality,’: is a call on governments, activists, and the private sector alike to “power on in their efforts to make the digital world safer, more inclusive and more equitable.” the organisation says.
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