This International Women’s Day, We Celebrate The Women Leading The Fight Against Neglected Tropical Diseases In Ethiopia

Stephanie Ogden, and contributors Tseguereda Abraham and Gobezie Ayalew, work with CARE, an organization that works around the globe to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice. Learn more about CARE’s work at: www.care.org.

This International Women’s Day, our CARE Ethiopia team pauses to remember the disproportionate impact that the neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) have on women in Ethiopia, and celebrate the essential role of women as key change agents and champions in the fight to eliminate the NTDs in one of the world’s most endemic countries.

In Ethiopia, roughly 75 million people are at risk of infection with at least one of the Neglected Tropical Diseases[1], a set of chronic, disabling diseases that disproportionately affect the world’s poorest communities. These diseases are intimately connected with lack of adequate access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, and are all preventable. Women are particularly vulnerable to infection, as a result of gendered roles and responsibilities that expose them more consistently to transmission. They also bear the greatest consequences of infection; women in Ethiopia are nearly twice as likely to suffer from trichiasis, the blinding stage of trachoma, than men[2]. Nearly a quarter of women in Ethiopia, aged 15-49, are anemic[3], a prominent consequence of hookworm and other intestinal infections.

In 2015, CARE Ethiopia initiated the I-WASHNTD program in South Gondar Zone of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, with support from Johnson and Johnson. CARE staff had seen the devastating effects of trachoma, schistosomiasis, soil transmitted helminths, and lymphedema caused by both lymphatic filariasis and podoconiosis in the Amhara region, and knew that water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) had to be a key element of prevention and control. CARE worked with local governments to draft action plans for WASH and NTD prevention. They defined key roles for women and girls, who have the greatest influence on household health and bear the greatest burden of responsibility for household WASH, and would have to be at the center of prevention efforts.

There are many ways in which the I-WASHNTD program seeks to empower women and girls as change agents in the fight against NTDs, from engaging local women’s affairs offices, to offering refresher training for health extension workers, to helping communities examine underlying gender and social norms that shape WASH and NTD prevention behaviors, and ensuring that girls stay in school and continue learning when they have their periods.

This International Women’s Day, we draw particular attention to the tireless work of women and girls in their roles as Health Extension Workers, teachers, female student ambassadors and school sanitation club leaders that are central to combating the NTDs in Ethiopia. As a result of their efforts in schools and communities in the I-WASHNTD program, face-washing and shoe wearing behaviors - essential to preventing trachoma and hookworm, respectively - have roughly doubled. More than 3/4 of households (nearly 10,000 households representing more than 40,000 people) have better, safer access to sanitation. More children are receiving deworming medication at schools. More families are teaching their neighbors about the importance of WASH and NTD prevention behaviors. And local governments are investing more in joint WASH and NTD prevention efforts. These are the changes that will ensure that Ethiopia overcomes the NTDs, and women are driving them. Women must continue to be at the center of planning and implementation for NTD prevention and control.

This International Women’s Day, we celebrate the women of Ethiopia and around the world, who are leading the fight to eliminate the NTDs.

Additional thanks to CARE Ethiopia team members: Gardachew Tiruneh, Emebet Achalef, Yakob Belay, and Abebaw Kebede.

This article is part HuffPost’s Project Zero campaign, a yearlong series on neglected tropical diseases and efforts to eliminate them. This series is supported, in part, by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the foundation. If you’d like to contribute a post to the series, send an email to ProjectZero@huffingtonpost.com. And follow the conversation on social media by using the hashtag #ProjectZero.

Sources:

[1] WHO PCT Databank, 2013

[2] The Carter Center (2009) Women & Trachoma Achieving Gender & Equity for the Implementation of SAFE

[3] Ethiopia, Demographic & Health Survey Key Indicators, 2016

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