“This campaign is a stepping stone”: how women and girls are fighting for better healthcare in South Africa

By Tracy Doig Johannesburg, South Africa,
Campaigner Tracy Doig goes back to speak to the women of Mkhondo Municipality, one of the worst performing health districts in South Africa. She delivers your messages of support from Write for Rights 2014, and sees for herself how the community is battling for better healthcare.

The last time I was in Amsterdam, Mkhondo Municipality, the stories of the women and girls I met shocked me. One woman, Othuli, told me how nurses at the local clinic had shouted at her for getting pregnant at 18 and “liking boys too much”. They told her that she smelt bad, humiliating her in front of everyone in the waiting room. When Othuli went into labour, the ambulance never arrived, and she gave birth on the way to hospital in the back of a hired car.

Othuli’s story was sadly all too common. Across Mkhondo, pregnant women and new mothers are struggling to get the healthcare they need to survive childbirth.

I returned to Amsterdam in March, to see what progress has been made since the launch of our campaign for better maternal health care. The visit was also a chance to deliver messages of support written by Amnesty supporters during Write for Rights 2014, our global letter writing marathon. We had collected well over a thousand messages from all corners of the earth – 18 countries to be precise.

Looking through letters of support written during Write for Rights 2014.

Four heavy boxes of support

In a small, red-brick room that forms part of a community centre in the suburb of KwaThandeka, representatives of the community were waiting for us. We caused quite a stir when we walked in with four heavily-leaden boxes of messages. The group took time to look through the many letters, photos and beautiful handmade cards.

We are happy about the letters because we see that many countries are giving us hope that one day that things will come right.
Maria Shongwe, health volunteer

There was great excitement about the cards from Taiwan and Japan, especially those with Chinese and Japanese symbols, while the messages in Spanish and French drew some bemused (but pleased) expressions. And they loved the cards and letters from young people, many of them decorated with drawings, glitter or ribbons.

“There was one letter from a little girl,” a young woman called Thandeka told me. “I think she was very young, from the way it was written. But she said she is thinking of us, she wants the best for us. It was so sweet. We are so thankful.”

“We are happy about the letters because we see that many countries are giving us hope that one day that things will come right,” said Maria Shongwe, a health volunteer who I had spoken to earlier in the campaign. “This makes us want to work harder than before.”

Helping women get better health care

The group told us they have been helping people in their community to learn more about their health. For example, they’ve taught boys and girls about their sexual and reproductive rights, and met with health care workers at the local clinic to talk about how services could be improved.

Community members from Mkhondo look through letters of support written as part of Write for Rights 2014, Amnesty's global letter writing campaign.

I was delighted to hear how much progress they’ve made. In the past, women and girls had not wanted to seek medical attention because the staff at the local clinic were rude and inconsiderate. In any case, women could only receive pregnancy-related health care two days a week.

But after talking with the staff, and helping women and girls understand their rights, the community has started to turn the situation around. Not only are the nurses more professional, but antenatal services are now being offered six days a week. This means that waiting times are reduced, so working women don’t have to take a whole day off and forfeit their pay just to attend the clinic.

More good news

I also shared some good news from neighbouring KwaZulu-Natal, another area in South Africa where we are campaigning for better maternal health care. A free bus service has been introduced for one clinic, which will help pregnant women attend appointments and ultrasounds. Nurses at that clinic have also reportedly stopped using differently coloured files for patients living with HIV, so they can keep their condition private and confidential.

The news encouraged the community to keep fighting, and they urged us at Amnesty to do more to help the women and girls of Mkhondo. I left with the words of Thandeka echoing in my head: “We are really thankful to Amnesty. The first time you came, you opened our eyes. This campaign is a stepping stone.”

Amnesty will continue to work with the South African authorities locally and nationally, to help women and girls get better healthcare.