Women sacrifice their health to shield families from spiking costs

Women are forgoing meals, doctor appointments and treatments to make ends meet as the cost of living rises around the world

  • Rising inflation is widening the gender gap, charities say
  • Women report skipping medical care to support families
  • Activists are sounding the alarm about government austerity measures

By Nita Bhalla

NAIROBI, Sept. 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Agnes Wachira’s chest pain started nearly six months ago, the Kenyan mother-of-three dismissed it as a symptom of the daily drudgery that comes from spending hours washing hands in narrow alleys the informal settlement of Kawangware in Nairobi.

Over the months, the pain has developed into a persistent tightness in her chest that often takes her breath away.

But with inflation in Kenya at a five-year high of 8.5%, the 48-year-old single mother says she can’t afford to seek medical help.

“Going to the doctor is not an option,” Wachira, who earns around 1,500 Kenyan shillings ($12.46) a week, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone from her home.

“I don’t have health insurance and can’t afford the medication, and the high cost of gas means even the cost of getting to the hospital is too expensive.”

From Kenya and Lebanon to Sri Lanka and the UK, rising living costs triggered by the Ukraine war and the COVID-19 pandemic are exacerbating gender inequalities, women’s rights activists say.

Women are being forced to neglect their own health to meet family needs as household budgets are squeezed by inflation, they say, and the situation will continue to worsen as many countries implement austerity measures.

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Wangari Kinoti, head of global women’s rights at international charity ActionAid, said all aspects of women’s health are at risk.

“What we’re seeing is that women end up reducing the number and quality of meals they eat each day and forgoing basic health care — like maternal health care and period products — to buy groceries,” said Kinoti.

“With less food available, women and girls become ‘shock absorbers’ of the household, meaning they end up eating the least, with serious health and nutrition implications, especially for pregnant and lactating women,” she added .


Charities say the global cost of living crisis has disproportionately hit women, who typically earn less than men and take on more unpaid household chores.

Poor households are still suffering from lost income and mounting debt from the COVID-19 pandemic and cannot withstand further economic shocks such as rising inflation, women’s rights activists said.

In Africa, for example, 58 million people are at risk of poverty due to the combined effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, according to the United Nations.

“Women start in a disadvantaged position because of long-standing gender inequalities,” said Caroline Dery, project manager for Catholic Aid Services in Ghana.

“They’re less likely to have a well-paying job, they’re more likely to be caregivers, so it’s not surprising that they’re the first to make sacrifices for their health,” added Dery, who focuses on women’s health.

In Lebanon, where the pound has lost more than 90% of its value, food prices have risen more than 11-fold and over 80% of the population has fallen below the poverty line, women are struggling to pay for costly sexual and reproductive health care .

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For example, the price of birth control pills has increased by more than 600% since 2019.

Karine, a 26-year-old translator from Beirut, said she could no longer afford to fill out her prescription for the pills she was taking to treat the hormonal disorder polycystic ovary syndrome.

Karine, who declined to give her full name, said the cost of the oral contraceptive was 12% of her monthly salary.

“It is too much for me financially as I have to buy food for my child. If I buy my pills, it would mean less food for my child,” she said.


In Sri Lanka, where inflation has hit more than 60%, 49-year-old Siththi Patima can no longer afford treatment for Steven Johnson Syndrome – a rare, serious condition that causes blisters and flaky skin and affects her vision.

The widowed mother-of-two, who has no health insurance, stopped attending a private hospital for treatment almost a year ago after costs skyrocketed to 15,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($41.67) a month were.

“My eyes started to improve during the treatment,” Patima told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from her home in the capital, Colombo.

“But both my girls are in school and my husband’s pension is the only thing that supports us. The travel and treatment costs were too high. My eyelids are stuck together now and I can’t see anything.”

Women’s health is not only bearing the brunt of the cost of living crisis in developing countries.

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Studies conducted in the UK – where inflation has hit 9.9% – found that women are also being forced to make difficult decisions.

A survey conducted in June by the charity Young Women’s Trust found that 30% of young mothers sometimes go hungry so that their children can eat.

This rose to 58% of single mothers.

Gender rights activists warn that the situation for women’s health is likely to worsen in many countries as cash-strapped governments seek to curb spending to pay off debt incurred during the pandemic.

“Many governments are imposing austerity measures and this will impact efforts to improve and expand social services such as health care and education, which are central to human dignity,” said Felister Gitonga, Oxfam’s head of gender justice and women’s rights.

“And of course it will hit women even harder and further exacerbate gender inequalities.”

($1 = 120.4000 Kenyan Shillings)
($1 = 1,505.7000 Lebanese Pounds)
($1 = 360,0000 Sri Lanka Rupees)

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(Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla, Additional reporting by Tala Ramadan in Beirut, Piyumi Fonseka in Colombo, and Lin Taylor in London. Editing by Sonia Elks. Please recognize the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, who saved the lives of People around the world struggling to live free or just. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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