The global Coronavirus pandemic cast a sharp focus on the deteriorating state of health services across many parts of the world. The lack of resources and often limited access in some of the poorest and marginalised communities in the African continent and the world were left scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to access fundamental rights to health care.
The advancement of sexual and reproductive health and rights for women was further derailed when global primary and secondary health institutions failed to prioritise women’s health and rights, leaving thousands of women and girls without access to contraceptive and family planning services, Gender-Based Violence services, prevention, treatment of viruses, and safe abortion services, during the lockdown.
For Eastern Cape-born women’s health activist Lucy Khofi, 27, whose research and studies in Medical Anthropology pushed her into advocating for unrestricted access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for women and young girls at the height of the global pandemic in 2020, says more work is still needed. The Johannesburg-based activist sat down to chat on all things women’s rights with The Republic Mail.
Khofi recalls that during her tenure as the Wits SRC gender and transformation officer, where she extensively navigated the daily challenges that female students faced, ignited her interest to empower and educate young girls on menstrual education and sexual reproductive health and rights.
Tackling one stereotype at a time, her activism aimed at giving women the choice and control over their sexual and reproductive lives inspired her Master’s thesis on ‘Menstrual hygiene and Management’ at the Zam’impilo informal settlement, West of Johannesburg, attempts to seek tangible solutions beyond the street level and draw on academic knowledge. It was the sight of appalling health and inhumane living conditions prevalent in the community, with which her NPO work was born.
“When I started this, I was looking at empowering, educating, and handing out necessity hygiene packs. But I soon realised that it goes beyond what I thought I’d be speaking on. I am representing women in different spheres, social standing, and backgrounds to raise [awareness] on what is not fair,” she says.
Through the #RealTalkwithLucy NPO, she spearheads the call for free sanitary products and ending period poverty in the country. She donates sanitary products in bulk to individual initiatives and distributes hygiene packs and sanitary products to disadvantaged communities, schools, and the streets of Johannesburg CBD.
“I was interested in teaching street activists or people who had our pads because it is so much you can know beyond just handing out pads. Menstrual education is important, and sexual reproductive health is important as an educational element,”
The first massive street distribution drive, Khofi held targeted street vendors in the inner CBD, where she donated more than 3000 sanitary pads, most of which she self-funded.
“My first load of pads for a few months were from my pocket. I don’t believe in waiting for sponsors or partners,” she recalled, “I’ve noticed that most people see what you do and start coming on board,” Her collaborative work includes working with the Wits Reith Hall Residence, which houses only female students. She distributes sanitary packs and forms part of the expert panel on women’s health and rights. More recently, Khofi has partnered with one of the leading sanitary company Lil-lets. She forms part of the ‘Be You Period’ campaign and continually receives pad donations from the organisation.
“I am always looking to collaborate to educate on sexual and reproductive rights so we can barriers and provide a safe place where conversations can happen without shame or discrimination, and that’s what I do with some of my initiatives which serve as an opportunity to empower and uplift young girls,” she says.
‘We still have a long way to go.’
Currently completing her PhD in Medical anthropology and Public health, Khofi’s recognition in Mail and Guardian’s 200 Young South African 2021 health category is one of her most outstanding achievements.
Speaking on the barriers and impact of not accessing SRHR, Khofi says ending gender and social inequality should be a top priority for many governments whose laws and policies threaten women’s health rights.
“Policies must address and respond to the needs of women,” she said, lambasting the lack of implementation of women’s health policies and gender inequality which prevents achieving universal access to the health rights for women and young girls around the world.
“We have good standard policies in South Africa, but they are not implementing these things on the ground. Implementation is the issue. We need young people in the government; we need people who are passionate about these issues. People who are open to suggestions and hearing what people have to say. And when we implement policies, we must go back to these affected places to get insight; you can’t assume while you are living in Sandton, and you have no idea what is going on in Zam’impilo, but yet you want to solve issues in Zam’impilo. So you have to start at grassroots level and get deep,” she says.
Although international human rights laws have made strides and leeway for the management of menstruation under the UN sustainable development goals (SDG) agenda, Khofi says fighting to end period poverty remains a complex challenge that highlights the dire conditions of millions of South African girls who do not have access or afford to buy sanitary products.
“When it comes to our rights, we are not getting anything. We are crying for the end of period poverty. Girls are dropping out of school because they have a period. But the government is not doing anything about that. We sit on calls and meetings with relevant stakeholders sharing our memorandum asking the government to meet us on board and try to reach us, but little is being done”.
According to a South African study, at least 3 out of 10 girls miss five school days during their period each month. Khofi says challenges around social, cultural, and economic issues in South Africa and many developing countries contribute to advancing sexual and reproductive health care services.
“Financial constraints force women and girls to use unhygienic materials such as cloths and newspapers to manage their period, often leading to infections,” Kofi explains. “Access to free pads remains the fundamentally important thing when we are fighting period poverty. Everyone has a right to access these. Countries like Scotland, New Zealand, and Asian countries offer pads or tampons in public areas for free as they do with condoms. People have normalised it. That’s what we want in South Africa,”
In 2019, South African Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni passed a landmark policy announcing that the government would be scrapping off the 15% VAT on all sanitary products following #BecauseWeBleed protests in the country.
“We encourage men also to be part of these conversations on sexual reproductive rights and women’s health-related issues. It’s not just a women’s problem; we need men on board and visa verse to bring collaboration and unity to fight these social ills,” she says.
Khofi’s advocacy and activism work extends into radio, where she shares her expertise and knowledge as a resident co-host on the ‘Emancipation Show’ with Pretty D on Rise FM. The radio slot further promotes and educates listeners on women’s health and related topics.
Beyond women’s health activism and face-to-face empowerment, Lucy spearheaded her latest initiative, ‘Adopt a student during a pandemic’, a support project undertaken to help students across South Africa cope with the academic and mental impact of Covid19. The support initiative, now registered as the Imfundo Enhle Education Trust, has garnered support for over 2000 students since lockdown and partners with mentors and different stakeholders. The Education Trust, which provides internships, learner ships, and funding opportunities, recently launched a
bursary scheme to fund students from previously disadvantaged communities.