Dr Sethembiso Mthembu graduated with her PhD in Social Sciences.
Dr Sethembiso Mthembu graduated with her PhD in Social Sciences.

Deputy Director for Research and Policy Analysis in the Ministry in the Presidency Responsible for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities and Co-founder of Her Rights Initiative (HRI), Dr Sethembiso Promise Mthembu graduated with her PhD in Social Sciences from UKZN for her research that Investigated the Political Economy of Injectable Contraceptive Depo Provera.

‘The choice of topic was motivated by the research, advocacy and human rights work I have been leading on forced and coerced sterilisations of HIV positive women in South Africa. I am one of the victims of forced sterilisations,’ said Mthembu.

A UKZN study on forced sterilisations of HIV positive women exposed her to the global politics of fertility of women sitting on the margins of society. ‘I began to realise that fertility control is not a technical or practical mistake, or a behaviour of bad doctors, but rather a systematic enterprise rooted in global political economy. I decided to dig deeper for my PhD.’

Mthembu investigated how international organisations responsible for health and population development such as the United Nations, human rights and philanthropist organisations, private foundations, drug companies, and international research and innovation agencies influence the ideology and policies of contraceptives in post-apartheid South Africa.

She recommends the introduction and or revisiting of policies and programmes that reflect an improvement on women’s rights and autonomy concerning contraceptives and reproductive health.

Mthembu believes that her research will assist in resolving the current challenge faced by health institutions as they deal with volumes of women who are coming forward about forced contraception, sterilisations and or womb removals that were done on them without their consent.

Advocating for women rights, her study ‘exposes evils that women were subjected to without their knowledge. This has the potential to mobilise women in the communities so that they critically engage with health systems, understanding that in fact, health could be an institution of oppression of women.’

The study identified a solidarity between nurses and the women who use services. ‘This gives the opportunity for the two to collaborate to improve the situation of women in as far as fertility control is concerned in the country. The control of women’s fertility, bodies and governability of women’s bodies is on top of the agenda in various governments around the world as well as international institutions. This is even more so with the outbreak of COVID-19 where fertility control is on the rise because of increased rates of poverty, child, and teenage pregnancy,’ she said.

Mthembu thanked her family, friends, and supervisor for their support. ‘I am proud to continue to be a role model for young women and girls in my family and extended family. With all the challenges I have had in life such as teenage pregnancy, living with HIV, and mothering a severely disabled child, I was able to start university education at the age of thirty and have progressed to this level.’ Mthembu is pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship and plans to continue to influence change through research. ‘I can finally make time to write and publish more on my research work,’ she said.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Rajesh Jantilal