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Investing in Women as Society's Caretakers

Halah is the community manager for Nursing@USC, the online Family Nurse Practitioner program at the University of Southern California. A dedicated storyteller for all things public health and social justice, she writes about health literacy, the social determinants of health and patient advocacy. Halah is an alumna of the School of Media and Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Throughout history, women have led as key family caregivers, often serving as the primary caregiver to their children and older family members. They administer the family’s home remedies, identify illnesses, and summon professional help when it is needed. As a result, women substantially influence decisions related to family health.

At the same time, women find themselves more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Complications from pregnancy can make them more susceptible to chronic infections like tuberculosis and malaria. While caring for a sick family member, a woman can pick up the infection herself. Exposure to mosquitoes and other vectors while gardening, cleaning, or cooking outdoors can lead to debilitating illness. Furthermore, many women de-prioritize their own health and well-being in favor of other family members, or they simply lack the time to invest in self-care.

Even though they invest in the wellness of loved ones, many women and families around the globe face substantial barriers to obtaining medical care. Some cultures favor traditional healthcare methods, including folk medicine, which discourage professional interventions. Geographically remote villages may lack any formally trained health professionals, and transportation to far-flung cities may not be feasible — especially for women in low-income communities.

Family nurse practitioners (FNPs) can play a primary role in educating women about preventive strategies that empower them to achieve greater overall health. These health professionals can transform patient encounters into comprehensive visits that include screenings and teachings on prevention topics specific to women’s health, culture, family structure, and geographical location.

Women living in areas with high rates of infectious diseases can rely on resources from FNPs and other health care professionals when visiting a clinic. These clinicians can incorporate disease prevention methods into reproductive planning measures, resulting in a comprehensive, contextualized response to a woman’s needs. Teaching women how to plan for future care instills good habits that get passed down through families, and can even help women decide when to take family members to see a health professional.

Of course, the education of women as caregivers should go beyond the household level. Encouraging women to pursue formal education of their own, such as entering science, math, and political professions, can bolster human development at the societal level. Increased education for women confers a broad range of community benefits, especially social advocacy and advancement. The Population Reference Bureau reports that “educated women are more politically active and better informed about their legal rights and how to exercise them.” This increase in power and independence directly impacts policies geared toward women and children, which maximizes government investment in health.

More broadly speaking, educating women serves as a tool for human development by improving literacy rates and rates of female participation in the workforce. Women living in the Middle East and North Africa face significant cultural and economic barriers to gender equality: female professions are limited to a small variety of positions, girls have fewer opportunities to attend formal schooling, and many women lack access to family planning resources. Where traditional gender roles are strongly upheld and women rely on men for economic support, formal education for women can not only support health literacy but also advance women’s rights as a whole.

The barriers to female empowerment in these regions are diminishing over time, while female leaders in the public eye can act to change the status quo and influence change. Women who become family nurse practitioners, social workers, or other health care specialists have a unique opportunity to exert influence. When women are empowered to take control of their own health, the results can be profound: reduced infant mortality, decreased spread of infectious diseases, and increased family and community health. An investment in women’s education truly is an investment in the well-being of society.

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