Often, in important historical and political movements, the rights and needs of women have been sacrificed and relegated to the back of society’s consciousness. Writer Gwendolyn Mikell cites the decolonisation of African countries as an example of this, stating that ‘after independence, male suppression of African women’s political autonomy increased’. This encroachment into the civil rights of women also has an effect on our access to adequate healthcare. As such, every wave of the feminist movement has concerned itself with and continuously advocated for healthcare being recognised as a fundamental right for women.
Besides the lesser political standing of women, religion is another way that women’s health is often jeopardised. In a 2014 article, ‘Confronting Fundamental Sexism in Africa’, Jessica Horn said, “in the past decade, religious fundamentalists have used women’s rights as a “soft target” in their moves to capture social and political power across the African region”.
Religion is able to influence society and shift culture through institutions (often educational), faith based service providers, including owned and managed health institutions, and training and providing healthcare workers according to their doctrines. Often, the lines between culture and religion become so blurred, that they are interchangeable. Religion, with a lot of well-meaning intentionality, enters into societies that are already patriarchal and furthers the unequal power balance between men and women by reinforcing shared ideals. For example, a society that already views women as subordinate to men can use Biblical teachings that call for the submission of women as justification.
A lack of autonomy and education for women sets a dangerous precedent which can result in lives being lost, the justification of these actions is often based on socio-cultural dynamics, which includes religion according to the UN. In July 2018, the World Bank reported that educating girls and women increases their knowledge and gives them the ability to make decisions regarding their own healthcare.
Maternal health encompasses everything from birth control, periods, and maternal mortality, and is a common way in which the sexual reproductive health and reproductive rights of women are often violated.
While working as a midwife, in Nigeria, my mother saw women die of conditions she says could and should have been avoided, if they were given adequate care on time. She also told me, “if their families were not caught up with praying every illness away and believing that medical treatment is against God’s will, then many women would have survived.” In many cases, it appears that religion is not only used to encroach on the rights of women, but it is being used as an alternative to medical care.
The number of women who fail to get birth control or undertake any type of family planning measures because their husbands and societies have deemed this as taboo, is unfortunately reflected in maternal mortality rates. As a Nigerian woman, it saddened, but did not surprise me to discover that Nigeria’s maternal mortality rate was reported as 58,000 in 2015 by UNICEF, one of the highest in the world. Coupled with the common practise of child marriage and frequent child birth, the lives of mother and child are often put in avoidable danger. This is especially common in the North of the country where my family is from, a place with a mix of male dominated culture and religion. A study conducted in 2013 found that contraceptive use was lowest amongst Hausa and Fulani women (from Northern Nigeria).
Before having a personal experience with the way dangerous and ignorant religious and cultural beliefs can endanger the lives of women, I had a picture in my head of the type of woman this would affect, probably the same woman you are picturing as you read this. You won’t be picturing a woman who has multiple degrees, independence, and a career. These women can also become victims. When a family member of mine became debilitated by illness, I realised that sometimes, no matter your level of education or career achievements, if your environment endangers some women, it endangers all women.
If your family diagnose you with a spiritual attack, if your husband relinquishes you to your family because of a belief that that you ‘belong’ to them, then you are in danger. Despite not knowing her, I imagine that if she had the ability to decide, to speak in her final days, she would have made a different choice for herself. She would have approved of the rituals that were performed on her behalf and the prayers that were raised for her, in lieu of medical intervention. Money was not an issue.
Religious leaders have now replaced healthcare workers. The door to door services that they deliver, more often than not, come with a fee. I have no problem with prayer, however while dousing people with holy water they should remind people that hospitals exist for a reason – they have a responsibility to do so.
During the recent Ebola outbreak in Congo, three victims escaped from quarantine – with the help of their families – and were taken to a religious gathering of fifty people to pray. The redeeming act of prayer should not come with such dangerous consequences. They risked infecting the general public and those in the gathering. Two of the three victims lost their lives during the gathering. In the same week, Ireland repealed the 8th amendment and legalised abortion, despite strong religious beliefs and opposition, in a historical referendum.
Religion has its place in the world and the topic of how it affects society is nuanced; it is not entirely negative, neither is it to blame for every bad practise that is enforced in its name. We should not demonise the idea of praying for those who are sick and believing in a higher, healing power. Yet, there is a clear danger in allowing religion that has been diluted with damaging and ignorant cultural practices, and sexist beliefs to dictate healthcare. Particularly when it comes to the health and lives of women, who are not the only victims of these practises, but more often are. I take issue with ‘allowing’ women to have rights that have always been theirs; change doesn’t come from that, but from them having the space to exercise those rights.
Written by Maimy Suleiman