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#WomensMonth: Colleen Khumalo on Aids, inequality and unions

Armed with a passion for healthcare policies that serve the people who need them the most, Colleen Khumalo, CEO of South African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (SACTWU) Worker Health Programme (SWHP) has a vision of diversifying HIV and TB management and prevention to reach other demographics of our society, especially in hard to reach rural areas.
#WomensMonth: Colleen Khumalo on Aids, inequality and unions

What leadership qualities would you say has allowed you to succeed as a woman in the healthcare sector and what advice would you give to other women?

Khumalo: There’s so much complexity to success in business, more so for women. But I think you should really absorb your own personal path. You must get as much of a formal education and experience as possible. In the healthcare sector specifically, I think it’s critical to understand things from both a private and public health sector perspective.

There is so much that can be achieved by creating bridges between the two but to do that, you need key people who understand the dynamics on both sides. You must always stay open to learning from others, and you must surround yourself with colleagues and independent thinkers who are great at what they do, and are not afraid to challenge you. You must treat yourself and others with respect. You must accept setbacks as inevitable and as an opportunity to learn and develop.

No great leader ever became great by surrounding themselves with timid “yes” people, nor did any of them beat a straight path to success without failures along the way. To be a woman, one must be resilient. The same is true in business.

Can you briefly explain the SACTWU Worker Health Programme, its objectives and successes?

Khumalo: South Africa’s organised labour movement mobilised relatively early on to attend to the scourge of HIV/ Aids as well as TB in the workplace. One such programme launched was SWHP.

Founded in 1998, the programme initially focused on helping the union to manage the effects of the disease on its membership. In 2003, SWHP registered as an NPO and broadened its reach, delivering services on a national basis to other communities affected by the HIV,/Aids and TB pandemics. It has provided life-changing health services to over 1,2m people directly, and many more indirectly.

How is gender inequality and violence contributing to the spread of HIV/Aids in the labour force and beyond?

Khumalo: Research in Southern Africa has shown an increased rate of infection in cultures with entrenched notions of masculinity. Moreover, when females are vulnerable in patriarchal societies – poor, uneducated, underage – they are more likely to have less information about sexual health.

They are also more susceptible to gender violence. Ultimately for some women, it is more difficult to negotiate safe sex, and to discuss and even to take advantage of the appropriate medical services.

What must still be done to fight against HIV/ Aids and TB?

Khumalo: We believe that the spread of HIV/Aids and opportunistic diseases like TB will only be halted through a comprehensive approach that focuses on the drivers of these illnesses in addition to implementing evidence-based biomedical prevention and treatment measures. The drivers that also need to be addressed include stigmas, poverty, gender inequality and violence against women.

We have focused on educating women and girls about their health and well-being. Any effort to fight gender inequality will also go a long way to helping women achieving the highest possible attainable standards of health.

Finally, it is also our view that collaboration has been critical to the progress that our country has made in the fight against HIV/Aids and TB. Stakeholders including national-, provincial- and district-level government departments, communities as well as local and international development agencies have made it possible for us to be effective in our work.

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