The world of medicine truly evolved in 1847, when British physician Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to be admitted into a medical school in the US — and, two years later, when she was the first woman to receive a doctor's degree.
In the 1800s, women faced extreme difficulties and prejudices if trying to enter the field of medicine. While there were plenty of medical colleges available for men, women were not allowed to attend. In fact, according to the University of Bristol, Blackwell herself was only admitted as a joke — and reportedly had to disguise herself as a man to attend.
Centuries later, more women are now increasingly taking up space and excelling in careers traditionally dominated by men, including science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — and that includes medicine and health care.
In the US, for example, 2017 was the first year that saw more women enrolling in medical schools than men, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlighted in 2019 that the health and social sector is "one of the biggest and fastest growing employers in the world, particularly of women."
Women make up 7 in 10 health and social care workers globally, and contribute $3 trillion annually to global health — although half in the form of unpaid care work. The WHO also highlighted, however, that women's representation in the most highly paid health occupations has been improving steadily since 2000.
But while women's participation in the health sector is strong, the WHO also added that further policies are needed to address inequities; eliminate gender-based discrimination in earnings (with an overall gender pay gap of around 28% in the health workforce); remove barriers to access to full-time employment; and support access to professional development and leadership roles.
Women across Africa face severe obstacles to good health, including gender inequity, poverty, sexual and gender-based violence, maternal health risks and childbirth, neglected tropical diseases, communicable diseases like HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria, and non-communicable diseases like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes.
According to many sources, including the WHO, key ways of improving women's health across Africa is empowerment of women, and creating a health system that is more sensitive and responsive to the specific health needs of women — and to do this, the participation of women at all levels of the health system, from patients, to frontline workers, to physicians, is essential.
Here are some remarkable women that we should all know about, who are breaking barriers and revolutionising medicine on the African continent, and offering up inspiration to pave the way for future generations of women in medicine.
1. Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng
Sexual Reproductive Health Specialist
Medical doctor and sexual and reproductive health and rights activist, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng — or Dr. T as she is known by her legion of fans on social media — is passionate about quality access to sexual and reproductive health services.
Mofokeng has always envisioned herself as a medical doctor from a young age. She believes that sexual and reproductive health chose her, as young women would speak to her freely about their sexual health and relationship issues, and that's when she found her true calling in the world of medicine.
She currently runs a sexual health clinic in Sandton, South Africa, and was appointed as the new UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health in 2020, becoming the first African woman to take on the role.
"I know that she will fight for human rights and for everyone, everywhere to be able to get the health care they need,” Executive Director of UNAIDS, Winnie Byanyima, said in a statement. “We both share a vision: that health care should not be just for the rich, but a right for all."
Mofokeng dedicates her time and expertise to ensuring that her vision of a world where all people, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, disability, or economic status, have access to reproductive health services.
2. Dr. Susan Karanja
With fewer than 40 neurosurgeons in Kenya, Dr. Susan Karanja is one of just three female neurosurgeons in the country. From as early as primary school, Karanja knew that her calling was to be a medical doctor, having grown up seeing awareness campaigns about the spread of HIV/AIDS.
After completing her internships, Karanja shifted her focus from internal medicine to surgery — combining that with the challenge of neurology. She went to South Africa for five years to study for her Master's degree in Medicine Neurosurgery at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
3. Dr. Elizabeth Awoliyi Abimbola
Dr. Elizabeth Awoliyi Abimbola was the first female physician to ever practice in Nigeria, and she was also the second president of the National Council of Women’s Society of Nigeria from 1964 to her death in1971.
Born in 1910, in Lagos, she went on to study medicine in Dublin, Ireland, before becoming a specialist in gynaecology and obstetrics. After her death, the Dr. Abimbola Awoliyi Memorial hospital was built in Lagos in the late 1970s in honour of her legacy.
4. Dr. Ncumisa Jilata
In 2017, at the age of 29, Dr. Ncumisa Jilata became Africa’s youngest neurosurgeon after completing her fellowship for the Council of Neurosurgeons of South Africa — also making her one of just five Black, female neurosurgeons in South Africa.
Jilata is an expert on all things related to the central nervous system, which is made up of the brain and the spine.
“All body parts made sense to me but the brain really captured my attention,” she told Drum Magazine. “Everything starts with the brain — walking, writing, ruling the world… The brain is the seat and the soul and I wanted to learn more about it.”
In 2017, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa praised Jilata during his Presidency Budget Vote in Parliament’s National Assembly, thanking her and other South African women breaking barriers in their different fields.
5. Dr. Sindi Van Zyl
Dr. Sindi Van Zyl was born in Zimbabwe and moved to South Africa to study medicine at University of Pretoria. Her passion lies in primary health care and not only is she a medical doctor, but she is also a health activist and former radio DJ. She recently left radio to recover from COVID-19.
Van Zyl advocates for the fight against HIV and currently works as a HIV clinician at her practice. She has always made it her mission to raise awareness about HIV and educate people about it, through radio and on her social media pages. She has also more recently started using her Twitter to educate people about COVID-19, too.
She is well loved and known for the medical advice she gives people on Twitter. She believes that medical Twitter has played a role in changing people's lives and has made more people feel open to discussing health issues with their doctors and nurses — a vital step in ensuring people are accessing health care.
6. Dr. Gloria Tshukudu
Dr. Gloria Tshukudu became the first South African woman to qualify as a plastic surgeon in 2013.
Tshukudu specialises in plastic and reconstructive surgery. She graduated with a degree in medicine at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, previously known as Medical University of South Africa. She went on to receive a Master of Medicine degree at the University of Limpopo’s Ga-Rankuwa Medical University at the end of 2012.
Tshukudu told Mediclinic that she treats cancer survivors who need reconstructive surgery to repair the effects of having had their tumors removed, and trauma victims who have been in accidents. She said: “Plastic surgery is more than helping people look good. I’ve seen it in my patients’ faces; they feel restored and transformed.”
7. Dr. Lindiwe Sidali
Dr. Sidali, 38, was born in a small town called iDutywa, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. After high school, she received a bursary from the North West Department of Health to study medicine in Cuba.
Sidali became the first African female cardiothoracic surgeon in 2018. She treats patients who suffer from heart, lung, oesophagus, diaphragm, and trachea conditions that need surgical intervention and cannot be treated with medicine alone.
8. Dr. Nomusa Shezi
Dr. Shezi, 35, is from KwaZulu-Natal province (KZN) in South Africa. In 2017, she became the first Black, female neurosurgeon from KZN and is one of only five Black African female neurosurgeons in South Africa.
At the time, the University of KwaZulu-Natal said it hoped her accomplishment would encourage other young people — and particularly women — to pursue careers in medicine.
Shezi told Independent Online: "As a doctor, I enjoy being able to help people when they are most vulnerable. Nothing is more rewarding than a patient coming into the hospital in severe pain or with a marked disability, and after intervention and rehabilitation, seeing them smile because they can now walk without pain, or they can return to work and lead a normal life."
9. Dr. Natalia Novikova
Dr. Natalia Novikova is a gynaecologist specialising in minimally invasive surgery, pelvic floor disorders, and cosmetic gynaecology in the Gardens area of Cape Town and Sandton area in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Novikova is from Ukraine and obtained her medical degree in 1998. She has studied and worked in countries including Ukraine, Sweden, Australia, and South Africa.
“I am proud to be the first aesthetic gynaecologist in South Africa certified by the European Society of Aesthetic Gynecology," said Dr. Novikova.
10. Dr. Nokukhanya Khanyile
Dr. Nokukhanya Khanyile, 29, works as a full time medical doctor at the Sebokeng Hospital in Gauteng, South Africa. Khanyile qualified to be a medical doctor in 2015 after completing her Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery degree at the University of the Witwatersrand.
According to Medical Brief, Khanyile was nominated as one of the 100 most influential young South Africans in the Science and Technology category in 2019. She was then named a winner in her category and placed seventh in the overall ranking. Not only is she a medical doctor but she also educates people about mental health on Instagram.