08 April 2016

[Blog Series] World Health Day – Diabetes and RMNCAH in Africa: A for Adolescent Health

Adolescents girls have a high risk of developing diabetes because of a high probability of poor family health history, under-nourishment and early pregnancy. All of these factors are compounded by inequality, which is one of the biggest barriers to good health for this age group. The girl child in families across low to middle income countries are often left at a disadvantage, due to a potent combination of cultural perceptions, traditional customs, and in some cases even national laws.

The phenomenon of girl brides is also particularly prevalent in some developing economies. In Niger, for example, 39% of children are married by the time they reach age 15, and 75% by the time they turn 18 years old. As such, the chances of a young girl staying in education are far less than her male counterpart, as she will be removed from education and face pressure to start a family. Yet the effects are not solely to stunt her future educational and career opportunities, but will also potentially have a dramatic impact on her health.

Education sits at the heart of improving health and tackling issues such as diabetes. If a girl is in school she is less likely to be seen as old enough to marry, and instead is seen for what she is—a girl child—whereas a girl who starts a family before her body has fully developed runs a higher risk of damaging herself and her offspring. This is further complicated with the compounded risk of gestational diabetes which affects 1 in 7 births globally. More than fifty percent of women affected by gestational diabetes go on to develop type 2 diabetes within 5-10 years of delivery.

The fight for parity is not just a social or feminist issue, but is in fact crucial to reversing the compound effects of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and complex health issues. Pregnant adolescents are less likely to be able to manage the strain of carrying a baby and breastfeeding. They are also more prone to related health conditions such as anaemia, especially in Asia and Africa, as a result of the strain placed on her young body from carrying a baby and then breastfeeding.

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Photo credit: The Wellbeing Foundation Africa

The situation is even more complex if the adolescent is the daughter of a woman who gave birth when she herself was a teenager.  In this instance, the baby risks inheriting their mother’s health problems that result from becoming pregnant at a young age, including in particular the potential for under-nourishment, which is increased if the mother was unable to breastfeed. Thus the cycle is perpetuated and reinforced, generation after generation.

Yet more worryingly, with 60 million African children currently estimated to be suffering from chronic malnutrition, the chances of a teenage girl suffering from irreversible damage due to poor eating is significant. As such, there is a critical need for much greater access to maternal care given by midwives and health professionals.

Despite the complex interplay of all these factors, adolescent girls are also the group through which generational patterns, both socio-economic and related to health, can be reversed. Key to this is one simple tool: education.

At the WBFA, Sustainable Development Goal 3 (SDG 3) and Goal 5 (SDG 5), to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages and to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls, are the main focus of our activities. At the heart of everything we do is our overarching mission: to empower and protect the girl child. And as part of our commitment to this we are a signatory to the Girl Declaration, and a proud partner of the Girl Effect and Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage initiatives in Nigeria.

Education is the most effective tool for empowering adolescents as they have the power to change their communities and future generation. This unique group is at a critical age where they can be taught how to look after themselves, receive an academic education and be equipped with vital reproductive advice. This will enable them to delay childbirth and look after their children when they do decide to start a family. And a girl who is empowered in such a way is also in a far stronger position to delay or reduce the effects of a non-communicable diseases like diabetes.

We can tackle the growing threat of diabetes, and protect adolescent girls from yet another health affliction that can have a dramatic impact on their young body. But we need concerted action and partnerships between political leaders, civil society and communities to make this happen. And we need this now. We have a window of opportunity to stop diabetes becoming the next global health epidemic. Let’s not wait until it is too late.

Toyin Saraki
Goodwill Ambassador, ICM
Founder-President, Wellbeing Foundation