On September 26, President Paul Kagame delivered a Keynote Address as the Chairperson of the African Union at a Panel Discussion on Breast and Cervical Cancer hosted by the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/AIDS (OAFLA).
The President highlighted the risks brought about by inadequate health systems across Africa. He observed that without proactive gender-based policy-making, women’s unique health needs are likely to be neglected by health systems.
He also addressed the lack of adequate representation of female doctors, which has left a big gender gap in the health sector.
Gender imbalance in medical field
For the last three years, the number of girls enrolling for medical courses has slowly increased, according to officials.
For instance, this year, the number increased from 20 per cent last year to 48 per cent, with boys taking 52 per cent, according to statistics by University of Rwanda’s School of Medicine and Pharmacy.
This is believed to be the highest number the country has ever had.
In school, girls are always encouraged to join sciences, and to change their mindset about the field — that science is for boys.
“I always dreamt of becoming a doctor since I was a little girl. Although the number of girls in my class was very small and after a while, continued reducing, I just knew I had to become a doctor someday,” said Dr Alice Niragire in a previous interview with The New Times regarding what inspired her to join medicine.
“Male students weren’t a threat at all. Instead, they encouraged and supported me where I needed help because I had to juggle work with studies. I cannot say other female doctors could not manage. In fact some decided to take on other courses like paediatrics and pathology, while others went abroad for psychiatrics and radiology,” she said.
Dr Niragire was the first female doctor to graduate with a Master’s degree in surgery since the course was introduced in Rwanda in 2006.
Prof Stephen Rulisa, Dean of School of Medicine and Pharmacy, says many girls think that joining the medicine field is for boys because it’s hard and technical, which is not true.
He says that when it comes to medicine, it’s all about being passionate about one’s job and handling patients carefully, skills he is sure girls possess.
Therefore, he says, the field could be even stronger if more women joined.
At the School of Medicine, they have been trying to demystify the notion that science is not difficult and that girls can do even better than boys. This has been done in various schools during different campaigns.
Jacky Irabagiza, a counsellor and matron at Martyrs High School in Remera, says not doing well in school in general is caused by many factors.
She says some don’t excel because of societal factors, especially girls, and not because boys are smarter.
She says in some homes, older girls are given the responsibility to take care of their younger siblings, especially the ones in day schools, giving them less time than boys to revise.
A radiology specialist examining a patient for presence of ovarian cysts with a modern ultrasound scan at Rwanda Military Hospital.
What is being done?
Rulisa says measures have been put in place to ensure that the number keeps on increasing.
He says that one of these is girl empowerment at a young age.
At the school, during admission, a lot is being done to ensure more girls enrol in different options in medicine.
For instance, they changed the policy of admission, whereby while admitting students, they don’t dwell solely on the marks one got in high school.
“High marks do not determine that one will be or is good at something, people who are successful in their careers are not necessarily those who got high marks; instead, there are many traits they possess rather than just good grades,” says Rulisa.
During admission, they consider skills.
This is so because they believe exams done in high school are not used to measure skills; this doesn’t guarantee a good doctor.
Such skills go hand-in-hand with marks, which pulls more girls to qualify for admission.
This has seen the number of girls in medicine increase gradually.
Dr Brenda Asiimwe Kateera, the country program manager AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF)-Rwanda, says there is need to encourage girls to take on STEM courses right from secondary level.
She says that schools should invite motivational speakers for career talks and mentorship to inspire girls. Like Dr Niragire, for example.
“These people should focus on the challenges the girls raise, misconceptions and stereotypes, among other things,” Kateera says.
She says that another reason as to why there are still fewer girls joining medicine compared to boys is that there is a higher number of dropouts in schools among girls.
According to officials, school dropouts are common among girls because of teen pregnancy, poverty and conflicts at home, which forces them to drop out, some with the hope of helping their families out of poverty by doing casual jobs.
Again, Kateera observes that the misconception about STEM courses being for boys, and lack of adequate career choice support, among others, also holds girls back.
Looking at the percentage, Athanasie Vuguziga, a woman activist based in Rwinkwavu, Kayonza District, Eastern Province, says it suggests that a lot of effort has been put in place to get more girls on board, but there is still so much work to be done.
She says that efforts to raise awareness of the value of science careers should be emphasised at an early stage.
Failure to do that, she says, professions in the science field, such as medicine, will suffer gender imbalance.
Are women more comfortable with female doctors?
It is said that female doctors understand the female body better, which is why many might warm up to doctors of the same sex.
As a gynaecologist, John Muganda says he has seen a number of female patients preferring to be attended to by fellow female doctors, which according to him is a big challenge.
In general, however, he says people feel more comfortable being attended to by someone of the opposite sex.
However, there is still a good number who prefer someone of the same sex due to various reasons.
For instance, he says, there are some religions that prohibit one to be attended to by someone who is not of the same sex.
Vuguziga says that some women are more comfortable when examined by a fellow woman.
She says this has something to do with the way one was brought up or the environment they grew up in.
She also notes that they believe that a woman is more considerate and understanding.
“Women tend to listen more, and we are created in a way that we tend to care a lot. This is just one of the reasons we should have more females in medicine field,” she says.
She, however, says that women who prefer to be attended to by fellow women should not underrate male doctors, instead, we should empower more girls to join the field.
As a Muslim, based on the teachings of the Holy Quran, it’s not permissible for a man to view the private parts of a woman’s body. However, due to medical attention and the few number of female gynecologists, we have no option but to be attended to by males.
Aisha Nirere, Kigali resident
There is need to support women and girls through trainings, education, counselling and other programmes that will see them excel in male dominated fields. However, boys also need the same support.
Denis Butera, Psychologist
I think men can be part of the solution to problems faced by women. It’s not that men don’t have issues, but women are more vulnerable. Supporting and being part of promoting diversity can help change the situation at hand.
Erick Ndayisaba, University student
Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable being half or fully naked in front of a male doctor without the presence of a female doctor. I think we should encourage our girls to join the field to give women options when it comes to treatment.
Placid Batamuliza, Tour guide