Highlighting Women who Advance Health through Groundbreaking Research

On March 8, the world celebrated International Women’s Day with the theme “Break the Bias” in communities, workplaces and education. The Task Force is proud to support and spotlight female researchers who are advancing health breakthroughs and breaking gender biases in science.

According to Forbes, women make up less than 30 percent of scientific researchers worldwide.  A report in Nature highlighted the upward trend of women starting careers in research but also noted that women are less likely to continue their academic careers than  their male contemporaries and they also publish fewer papers.

Task Force programs such as the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center (NTD-SC) and the Health Campaign Effectiveness (HCE) Coalition support researchers working to eliminate diseases, protect populations and address gender inequalities in health.

One such researcher is Dr. Alison Krentel, who works on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), including female genital schistosomiasis (FGS), a stigmatizing form of schistosomiasis with symptoms similar to sexually transmitted infections that affects an estimated 56 million women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Dr. Alison Krentel

Krentel began her research and public health career working to reduce lymphatic filariasis in Indonesia and credits those formative years for teaching her the importance of building trust  “between a researcher and the district and communities, trust between the district and the community, and between the community members themselves.” 

Krentel is Assistant Professor in the School of Epidemiology and Public Health at the University of Ottawa and scientist at the Bruyère Research Institute.

“I am a social scientist, and social science is a field that has traditionally tended to have more women than men,” said Krentel. “Historically within NTD work, I think it is fair to say that social science research has not consistently been applied as an integral and equal part alongside the parasitological, epidemiological, and clinical work that contributes to NTD elimination. Over time, there has been a paradigm shift that has helped raise the importance of the contribution of social science research to NTD elimination goals. With that, there has also been an increased focus on the inclusion of gender-related operational and implementation research.”

Currently, Krentel works with colleagues through an initiative called the FGS Accelerating to Scale Together Project (FAST Package) to train and raise awareness about female genital schistosomiasis among clinicians and frontline health personnel in Ghana and Madagascar. In both countries, baseline research has found that schistosomiasis is considered by some community members as a ‘boys’ disease’ because symptoms may include blood in urine which some believe is a sign that indicates coming of age for boys.“This perception makes it even harder to inform about the long-term risks to women and girls of chronic infection with schistosomiasis that can lead to FGS,” said Krentel.

In addition to building awareness and ensuring gender-representation among health personnel in training activities, Krentel and partners advocate  to increase access to diagnosis and treatment for FGS amongst adolescent girls and women of reproductive age.

Krentel credits her colleague Dr. Mwele Malecela, who passed away in February, for helping to break gender biases. As the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Director of NTDs, Malecela inspired many women, researchers and health workers alike, and led the development of the WHO’s 2030 NTD Roadmap in which “she championed gender equity at the highest levels and supported the development of an equity working group that included gender as a focus issue,” said Krentel.

Dr. Saima Mehjabeen is another researcher who refuses to let gender biases be a barrier to her work to advance public health.

“Till now, female representation in global health leadership was very insignificant,” said Mehjabeen, Senior Research Associate at BRAC University in Bangladesh. “The health sector as well as the immunization field is predominantly led by males. Women’s engagement at the top levels of health leadership must be enhanced to move toward gender-responsive immunization delivery and address existing gender inequities.”

Dr. Saima Mehjabeen

Mehjabeen leads an implementation research project in Bangladesh supported by the HCE Coalition which looks at the effectiveness of integrating immunization campaigns in Bangladesh. This includes understanding gender barriers to accessing immunizations. Bangladesh seeks to use more gender-responsive and gender-transformative approaches to immunization campaigns.

Mehjabeen explained the difference between the two terms.

“‘Gender-responsive’ programs might be ‘gender-specific’ in the sense that they target a specific set of women or men but do not pose a problem to them,” said Mehjabeen. “In Bangladesh, sending female vaccinators or health assistants to households in conservative areas where women’s interaction with men is limited is an example. This strategy also works well in Rohingya Camps where Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals have taken shelter.”

Gender-transformative approaches are more effective in addressing issues where there is gender inequality and discrimination.

“Instead of recognizing mothers as the only caregiver of the child, encouraging and engaging fathers to take an equal and active role in child care and immunization can be a great example,” said Mehjabeen. “This approach can be taken through strong communication materials during immunization campaigns.”

Fueled by a passion for being inquisitive and learning every day, Mehjabeen likened designing, planning and conducting research studies to “nurturing my child.” Adding a gender lens to her work is helping  to change the research landscape.

“Involvement of women at the highest levels of decision-making and planning, and building women’s competence is needed to effectively carry out these positions,” said Mehjabeen. “This will support the achievement of larger gender equality and women’s empowerment goals in order to improve the health systems of a country.”

Researchers like Krentel and Mehjabeen are just two examples of the many female researchers working alongside The Task Force. We are eager to continue to support such  researchers and increase gender representation in research and science, especially at the leadership level.

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