When we talk about gender equality in society, we often think of the pay gap or in public prominence. Some may also associate it with physical and psychological violence. However, reference is not often made to gender equality in health.
Health is more than not becoming ill. It is, “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not just the absence of the illnesses or diseases”. Therefore, inequality between men and women is a question of health. It is, literally, a matter of life and death. — Beatriz Becerra Basterrechea, Member, European Parliament
Every year, dating back to 1911, the world observes March 8 as International Women’s Day. The day marks a call to action for creating equal opportunities for women and girls otherwise called gender equality, while celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women.
This year’s theme, Balance for Better, focuses on issues around work-life balance, mental health and the challenges women face juggling responsibilities at work and home. It is a call-to-action to drive gender balance in workspaces and across the world.
As we advocate for gender equality and equity in Nigeria’s workplace, it is important to reflect on the repercussions gender inequalities has on our society.
The inequalities women experience at work seem to revolve around two themes; respect/position in the organisation and remuneration. With greater transparency in organisations, it has been found that women have received less pay than their male counterparts to deliver the same high-quality work. Gender inequality remains a major barrier to human development. Too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, education, political representation, and the labour market. In Bill and Melinda Gates’ recent Gates 2019 Annual Letter, they pointed out that “Data can be sexist” as there was insufficient or non-existent data that adequately captured the lived experiences of women and as a consequence, Melinda Gates noted that “what we choose to measure is a reflection of what society values”.
Family physician and Universal Health Coverage advocate, Dr Adaeze Oreh, described some of the inequities facing women at work in Nigeria. She opined that the extra pressure women face in Nigeria is largely due to their multiple responsibilities, without corresponding remuneration. This has contributed to the trend she observed in the medical field, where many women in the early stages of medical school drop out as the course progresses, due to the many life pressures they face.
It should come as no surprise that women are nearly twice as likely as men to suffer from mental illness. Research shows a significant correlation between gender inequality and gender disparities in mental health. This results in a less healthy society, which ultimately will impact on the nation’s economy. These findings should convince policy-makers and health professionals to embed gender equality in all programs to improve the overall health of the nation.
Work-life balance as a game changer for gender equality and mental health
The World Health Organization recognises that gender is a critical factor influencing mental health. Maria Nyman, Director of Mental Health Europe, points out that, “Each of us may experience mental distress for our own unique reasons, but women are more likely than men to experience stress, and unequal sharing of care responsibilities is very common: that’s why work-life balance measures can really make a difference for mental health and gender equality.”
A 2011 study on the work-life balance initiatives available in three sectors of Nigeria’s economy — the banking, education and power sectors showed that there were less work-life initiatives in the power sector than there were in the other two sectors. Despite the availability of work-life balance initiatives, the survey found that employees were not using the initiatives as regularly as they should. Several barriers kept employees from taking advantage of work-life initiatives, including increased job demands, the culture of long hours and irregular work hours, lack of managerial support, inability to achieve flexible working schedules and lack of support from colleagues.
Many of these barriers have repercussions on the mental health of Nigeria’s women. For many women, work is combined with care responsibilities at home and in society. This can further obliterate any sense of a work-life balance, especially for women who may have demanding careers and who already face the pressures of inequality and inequity in the workplace.
Nigeria’s Labour Act includes a section dedicated to the employment of women. Part III, Section 54, sub section 1 notes that a pregnant woman has the right to leave her work if she produces a medical certificate given by a registered medical practitioner stating that she is likely to give birth within the next six weeks; that she is not permitted to work during the six weeks following childbirth; must be paid not less than 50% of her wages while she is absent from work to give birth, and if she is nursing, must be allowed half an hour twice a day during her working hours to do so. When organisations fail to implement these and other work-life balance policies that affect women, women suffer, their stress levels rise, and they become more prone to mental health issues.
#BalanceforBetter, then, isn’t just some nice to have idea, it is gender equity which benefits the health of men, women and the entire society. Measures to improve work-life balance for women include learning when to say no, sharing work with others, taking time to prioritize and simplifying tasks. It is also important for everyone to understand what they want to get out of their work-life balance.
On International Women’s Day, we get a chance to celebrate the strong women who have over the last century bravely led purposeful action to redress inequality in the hope of a better future for their communities, children and themselves. Whether through bold well-documented action or through humble resistance that never made it into the history books, women have united for equality and achievement all through history. While special recognition goes to some of these women who have left their mark by significantly improving health systems in Nigeria, we continue to push to ensure that rights due to men and women are equitable, for the health and well-being of our entire society.
Do you know an organisation that has an excellent work-life balance culture in Nigeria? Share with us!
What are you doing to ensure that gender equality and gender equity are part and parcel of your workplace? Let us know!
Do you have an activity planned for International Women’s Day 2019? Share on Twitter and tag us @nighealthwatch with the hashtag #BalanceforBetter.