Each year, on May 25, Africans across the continent and in the diaspora celebrate Africa Day (also known as African Unity Day) to commemorate the founding of the African Union on this day in 1963. Africa Day offers an opportunity to reflect on social, political, and economic progress made on the continent.
In recognition of the day, I’d like to acknowledge the contributions of African women in health research. It is widely acknowledged that women are the “doers” in health, rarely the decision-makers. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but one that must be spoken about at a time when women make up 75% of the global health workforce but only occupy about 25% of senior leadership in the field.
In health research, a field that has generally been dominated by white males, the number of women in leading roles in research is even smaller. Even though we are beginning to see greater representation of both male and female (Black) Africans in research, underrepresentation of women in this field remains a challenge. Women at the center of health research bring with them their lived experiences and nuanced understandings of the issues on the table. When our voices and unique needs are not represented, then our health issues cannot be addressed in a way that truly benefits us.
I’m dedicating this article to six African women health researchers who are breaking barriers and paving the way for younger women to prosper in the field. Each of these women is a trailblazer who is making a phenomenal contribution to improving health outcomes for Africa as envisioned by the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and proving that even when we work in the background, our contributions matter.
1. Dr. Chewe Luo, Associate Director, Programme Division, and Chief of the HIV/AIDS Section, UNICEF, Zambia
A pediatrician and tropical health specialist, Dr. Luo has over 20 years of experience leading clinical and research teams formulating and brokering health and research programs. She has risen through the ranks to work with UNICEF at country, regional and headquarter levels. Dr. Luo’s research has focused on HIV in women and children, results of which have informed policy and practice globally. In her current role, Dr. Luo spearheads HIV/AIDS care by advocating for decisions that affect global and public health policy.
She holds a PhD in Tropical Child Health and Epidemiology, a Master of Science in Tropical Pediatrics and Child Health and a Master of Medicine in Pediatrics.
2. Dr. Izukanji Sikazwe, Chief Executive Officer and Director, Centre for Infectious Disease Research, Zambia
One of the youngest executives leading a research institute in Sub-Saharan Africa, Dr. Sikazwe continues to break barriers and push boundaries to improve primary health care and address challenges around infectious diseases in Zambia. Through her work in HIV prevention, care and treatment, she has managed to penetrate the global health space and break the age barrier to earn the recognition and respect of researchers both at home and abroad.
Dr. Sikazwe was recently appointed as a member of Zambia’s National Health Research Authority Council, where her passion for HIV research, clinical care, and training of healthcare providers will undoubtedly inspire lasting change.
She has a master’s degree in public health and has specialized in Internal Medicine and Infectious Diseases.
3. Professor Morenike Ukpong-Folayan, Associate Professor, College of Health Sciences, Obafemi Awolowo University, Nigeria
Professor Ukpong is a prominent Nigerian researcher at Obafemi Awolowo University with over 15 years’ experience in health research. To date, she has contributed to over 170 research publications in peer reviewed journals on topics ranging from HIV and bioethics to gender justice and reproductive health and rights in Nigeria, where her work has led to changes in policy and programs for adolescents living with HIV.
Professor Ukpong, a self-professed “community ethicist”, has also worked as a consultant with UNAIDS, WHO and Global Fund among others, and is celebrated for her ability to combine her research work with advocacy and community engagement. She holds a PhD in Pediatric Dentistry, a Master of Business Administration, a bachelor’s degree in Dental Surgery, and is a Fellow of the West African College of Surgeons.
4. Professor Sheila Tlou, Co-Chair, Global HIV Prevention Coalition & NursingNow, Botswana
In addition to a distinguished career in nursing, Professor Tlou is a prominent HIV, human rights and gender activist, a former Member of Parliament and former Minister of Health who served in Botswana’s health ministry from 2000-2004.
Known affectionately as the “Healthcare Giant of Botswana”, she has been relentless in her advocacy for HIV and AIDS, gender, and women’s health reform, and during her time as minister led a successful AIDS prevention, treatment, support and care program that is still considered among the best in Africa.
Professor Tlou holds a PhD in Community Health Nursing, a Master of Arts in Education, and a Diploma in Gender Issues.
5. Dr. Placidie Mugwaneza, Director of the HIV Prevention Unit in HIV/AIDS, STIs and Other Blood Bones Infection Division, Rwanda Biomedical Center
Dr. Mugwaneza has over a decade of experience in planning, management, evaluation, and support of HIV prevention programs, specifically the Prevention of Mother to Child HIV Transmission (PMTCT) program in Rwanda. She carries a huge responsibility in a country where the standards – in terms of health research and delivery – are already very high.
There are many lessons to be learned from her tactful leadership in achieving and maintaining HIV goals, and her mentorship of students through her role as a lecturer under the Faculty of Global Health Delivery at the University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.
Dr. Mugwaneza has a master’s degree in public health and has over 40 publications to her name, in which she has shared her findings on HIV transmission and care.
6. Professor Philippa Musoke, Professor of Pediatrics and Child Health, University of Makerere, Uganda
Professor Musoke is one of the few female professors at Makerere University. A Pediatric Infectious Diseases specialist, she currently leads the research arm at the university and has contributed to groundbreaking studies in areas including HIV prevention and treatment since 1995.
Professor Musoke is passionate about prevention of mother-to-child HIV transmission and has published close to 20 papers detailing her work in perinatal HIV and infectious diseases in children, among others.
She earned her medical degree from Makerere University (Uganda) and did her infectious diseases fellowship at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland Ohio, as well as a pediatric residency at University of Louisville, Kentucky.
These women have overcome many barriers that have been institutionalized by systems that often undermine our chances of success. Their voices, energies and contributions will make Africa’s future decisions around health impactful and powerful. Because of them, and many others like them, the path to success and health leadership might be a little less rocky for the next generation of African women in health research.
So as we celebrate Africa Day, let us spare a moment to acknowledge their contributions and those of many others who came before them, commit to uniting as women in research – together with our male allies – and create a movement for equity in leadership that will see more women take up seats at the decision-making table.