Let’s celebrate nurses and midwives, the superheroes of our health system

By Emily Katarikawe, Jhpiego Uganda

Nurses like Jackline are the backbone of Uganda’s health system and play a critical role in improving health outcomes and the overall cost-effectiveness of care. Photo Courtesy of Jhpiego.

Step into a health center anywhere across Uganda and you’ll likely find a talented team of nurses and midwives, running around in pink and white uniforms delivering babies, providing immunization, treating injuries and helping patients manage illnesses. These health workers are the backbone of our hospitals and clinics, providing essential day-to-day care to keep our communities healthy. These positions are also overwhelmingly filled by women.

More than 80 per cent of nurses and midwives in Uganda are women, many of whom face extraordinary challenges which can prevent them from doing their jobs effectively. Female healthcare workers often have to deal with health facilities that are understaffed, clinics that lack adequate resources, gender inequities and the pressures of balancing additional familial and societal responsibilities.

Jackline K., a midwife working in Isingiro District, is one of these frontline health workers. For many years, her health center didn’t have proper equipment to resuscitate newborns who couldn’t breathe or even running water in the maternity ward.

Despite these challenges, she worked day in and day out serving her community and providing essential care to help mothers and their babies survive. Female health workers, like Jackline, are critical catalysts for countries like Uganda to reach our national health goals as well as the goals that we have agreed upon as an international community.

The Sustainable Development Goals rightly place women and girls at the center and emphasize how empowering women across all segments of the workforce is critical to ending poverty and improving health outcomes. Women today are playing a larger role in both the formal and informal economy and policies must be in place to support and protect them – policies that empower them as leaders and protect their roles and rights in the workplace.

The responsibilities women have, and the huge amounts of work that they do within their families and communities, often go unrecognized and undocumented. Women’s unpaid work – cooking, cleaning and childcare – is valued at $10 trillion annually. For female health workers, that unpaid work falls on shoulders that are already working more than 10 hours a day caring for patients.

Through my work with Jhpiego, an international non-profit health organisation affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many incredible women, like Jackline in Isingiro, who work tirelessly to improve the health and wellbeing of all Ugandans. I’ve met nurses in health centers across the country serving as the only staff available to provide maternal, newborn, child and reproductive health services. I have met midwives who deliver newborns by the sole light from their small cellphones (katorch). These women inspire me every day with their dedication and perseverance.

Jhpiego is committed to supporting female health workers across the world to build sustainable health systems. We partner with ministries of health to ensure the most underserved communities access life-saving commodities and services. We work with the whole spectrum of the health workforce to build competency and confidence, and provide quality health services. We ensure nurses and midwives have the skills and resources needed to save lives in some of the most difficult and remote locations.

At Jackline’s health facility in Isingiro, we worked to help them procure lifesaving equipment, like resuscitation tables and water tanks, and organized skills building sessions for the nurses and midwives on infection prevention and obstetric and newborn care.

To all of the nurses and midwives in Uganda, many of whom are leaders in their workplace: I applaud you. You make critical, life-saving decisions every day. You make unreserved sacrifices, in challenging work environments. You go above and beyond to give newborns and laboring mothers a chance to thrive.

One of my jobs is to ensure that female health workers are empowered and have the skills needed to take on leadership positions within the broader health system. I believe that if we empower frontline health workers, we are empowering women who will be leaders in their workplaces, families and communities. Let us commit to investing in transformative innovations and applying our expertise to improve healthcare services and health outcomes in Uganda. Together, we are making a difference – a difference that wouldn’t be possible without female health workers.

This piece originally appeared in the Daily Monitor and can be accessed here.

Jhpiego Uganda, in partnership with Seed Global Health, Peace Corps and VSO, will be hosting symposium for nurses and midwives later this month, which will seek to update nurses and midwives on the latest national and global RMNCH service delivery approaches and innovations, and spotlight their exceptional contribution to Uganda’s health sector.

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