Ugandan Activist Margaret Kabango reflects on her experience at Women Deliver 2019 – the biggest global conference on gender equality.
We’ve come a long way in the fight for gender equality. During the opening discussions, a young woman from Zambia blew me away. She sat on the stage next to established politicians, including the prime minister of Canada and the presidents of Ethiopia, Kenya and Ghana, and showed us the fight that young women endure. She spoke with fire about young girls being forced into marriage and their lack of educational opportunities. Young girls are being deprived of opportunity and women are denied leadership roles. We need to wake up and work together – as women and as leaders – to stop this. But to achieve gender equality, we need to tackle the issues older women experience too. The issues all women face as we age.
The menopause is a sexual and reproductive health issue
Women Deliver is a conference rooted in sexual and reproductive health and rights. But I only heard the word ‘menopause’ mentioned a handful of times. In one session coordinated by HelpAge, I sat down with a group of women to talk about our experiences of the menopause. This was the first time I have ever spoken about it with other women. In cultures across the world we feel we must keep quiet about sexual and reproductive health, even if these health problems require immediate attention. We shouldn’t feel ashamed. We shouldn’t be victims.
The menopause is a difficult time for many women. We undergo both physical and emotional changes that can be alarming, particularly for women who are not educated about its effects or are unable to access medical support.
Sexual and reproductive health issues don’t stop in old age. After I went through the menopause, I noticed I had started bleeding. I have a background as a health professional, so I knew this was not right. I went to the gynaecologist and she said my uterus had enlarged. Thankfully it wasn’t cancerous yet, but it was decided I should have a hysterectomy.
As I was retired, I was not eligible for free treatment. My husband and I had to put our monthly pensions together to be able to afford my surgery. It cost around $300. I was lucky I had the power and knowledge that comes from working in healthcare – I knew something was wrong and sought help. But many older women in my country of Uganda do not have the same power or privilege. Many live in rural areas, have low incomes and live miles from health centres. They’re not included in health education initiatives, so the situation can be fatal for them.
Older women must be counted
I went to the conference thinking that issues that older women face would be ignored, and in some ways they were. Really, only the sessions co-organised by HelpAge (where I was a panellist) and one other session that I went to mentioned older women explicitly. It’s like you reach 60 and you are discarded.
I don’t think people realise that older women have so much knowledge and experience to share. After all, the founder of Women Deliver is an older woman and many of the women presenting at the conference were older women too. So why do they not advocate for themselves and other women like them?
But I have hope. The more the conference went on, and the more I spoke in sessions and to fellow delegates, the more people heard our message. People agreed with us that older women won’t count, if they are not counted.
Participating in Women Deliver has given me more drive, more energy and more power to challenge the invisibility of older women. We must have the access to the health services we need in our older age. We must include older women in economic empowerment initiatives and we must see ageing mainstreamed in gender equality discussions.
What I want to see now
At the next Women Deliver conference in 2021, I want to see older women included in discussions about health, economic empowerment, unpaid care, and sexual and reproductive health and rights. I want to see them included in more policies, programmes and campaigns, so they can also access essential healthcare services and have the tools, confidence and knowledge to seek help when needed. After all, we are all ageing and, God willing, young girls will be older women too one day.