Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) are a group of diseases that affect more than 1 billion people around the world. From eyesight loss to swollen limbs, the effects can be debilitating, if not fatal. NTDs often affect communities that live in rural and remote regions, far from health care centers — but within these regions, women are disproportionately affected.
From female-specific diseases such as female genital schistosomiasis (FGS) to the attached stigma and the resulting loss of social opportunities, such as employability or marriage, many women are forced into social exclusion or must depend on their families for life.
Women and girls of all ages experience the impact of these diseases throughout their entire life cycle, albeit in different ways.
School-Age Girls and Adolescents
In general, socio-cultural factors put women and girls at a greater risk of exposure to NTDs than men. According to a 2016 report by Uniting to Combat Neglected Tropical Diseases, two-thirds of water collection is performed by women and girls, which puts them at a higher risk for contracting water-borne NTDs, such as schistosomiasis, in endemic areas.
Even if a girl hasn't been diagnosed with an NTD herself, she may still suffer economic and social consequences from a family member becoming ill. For instance, girls are often expected to drop out of school to take care of sick family members. This can have long-term effects as keeping girls in school improves their likelihood of job prospects later in life, empowering their economic independence.
Women of Childbearing Age
Many women help tackle NTDs by working as healthcare providers or community distributors. For example, Evodia is a community distributor in Cameroon. She works to ensure people in her community receive the treatment they need to prevent river blindness, according to Sightsavers.
Women are also at a higher risk for NTDs because they are often the ones left with household work such as cooking and cleaning — tasks that take place near potentially contaminated water.
Grandmothers play important roles as caregivers. When mothers are busy working or caring for their children, extended family members like aunties, or generally grandmothers, step in to help with the caregiving. This means that the chore of caring for others that are sick with NTDs also falls to elderly women.
As women assume the roles of caregivers, community drug distributors and healthcare workers, on top of carrying out tasks socially expected of them, the burden of NTDs lands on their shoulders — which ultimately means that in order to put an end to these diseases, their involvement will be key.