A journey to being Woman of the Year 2017

Shakira Choonara
30 March 2017

As a young South African woman I have only one aspiration, and that is to bring healthcare to the poorest and most vulnerable people. In this country, every sphere of our society is divided along lines of class, particularly our social spaces including public transport, restaurants and shopping. In the spaces which are meant to fulfill basic human rights - healthcare and education, there are stark and unjust differences between the public and private sectors.

My passion and lifelong dream for improving the health system stems from my personal experiences - at a very young age, witnessing first-hand the dire state of public health services, intertwined within a midst of discrimination, stigma and vulnerability.

An early morning rise at 5am, packing a lunchbox, dreading the long day ahead. After finding transport to the hospital, I remember standing, cold, at the end of a long queue, waiting for the hospital to open. Nothing is ever clear cut when seeking healthcare at a public facility; there are frustrations around how to pay, in accessing your medical file, as well as collecting routine medications that seem to change at least every other month. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I once took my patient file home just to avoid the filing line and to avoid it being misplaced.

On another occasion, I’ve had to deal with the emotions of extreme sadness and concern when leaving a family member in a prison ward the night before an operation because there were no other beds available in the hospital. But what can one do? The answer then was nothing, not when you do not have the choice (or money) but to rely on public health services. The sense of powerlessness and injustice has never left me. In fact it shapes my every action and is the reason why I am committed to never having any patient or their families experience such conditions.

The reality is that there are many worse experiences with disastrous health outcomes, especially for vulnerable people, such as the 94+ mental health patients in South Africa who were treated like animals and massacred due to poor leadership, inefficiency and no value for patient rights.

I began to grapple and understand these challenges while pursuing a career in public health and joining the Resilient and Responsive Health Systems research project in April 2013. The past four years has given me many opportunities to learn first-hand the challenges facing the health system, but also to be part of a brilliant multi-country consortia led by remarkable health system gurus of our generation, especially Lucy Gilson. Through the research, I have interacted and collaborated with many public sector health providers, working with them to strengthen the health system. Involvement in the project has undoubtedly set me on the path to combining research with practice and trying multiple mechanisms to engage policy makers and bring about wide-reaching, positive change.

In a recent interview with Girls Globe, I was asked what emboldens me to use research and push for change in our health system. The answer is certainly linked to capacity building programmes. Participating in the Emerging Voices (EV) for Global Health Programme in 2014 exposed me to a network of young leaders who were moulded and propelled to be change-makers. Being recognised as the European Development Days Young Leader for Health in 2015 and having the platform to shape development discussions with high-level panellists such as Dr Margaret Chan from the World Health Organization, gave me the courage to forge ahead, become an activist and participate in networks which demand accountability in healthcare. Further participation in the Women Deliver youth scholarship programme also ignited an interest in advocacy, activism and changed my career goals from research to action.

The most unexpected and life-changing moment was to be nominated alongside leading medical professionals, professors and civil society activists for the Woman of Stature, Woman of the Year in Healthcare Award. The nomination process itself was extremely humbling and I felt truly honoured. The process and build-up to the glamourous event was empowering in itself, including a fabulous dress by South African designer Mariska Phafl. It was a huge and welcome surprise to be officially named the Woman of the Year in Healthcare 2017 at the annual awards ceremony held on 11 March. I would describe this not as a personal award but a collective award which would not have been possible without the RESYST consortium, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, the Public Health Association of South Africa (Junior and Gauteng Branches) the thousands of friends, mentors, colleagues, the communities I have lived and worked in and the broader public. This is truly our award and a mark in change of times in South African democracy, as both my grandmothers were illiterate yet today women across racial groups are empowered and considered to be leaders within their respective fields.

Moving forward, I am forever shaped by my experiences in the public health system and witnessing the suffering and struggles of patients and their families that continues today. I will not rest until health systems truly meet patient needs, thus my journey is far from complete. The greatest lesson I have learnt is the value of nurturing the next generation of activists and change-makers, which is critical to transforming our societies and our health systems, and any success I have enjoyed thus far is testament to this.

As I continue the journey to achieving better healthcare I hope that you will join me and that together we build a better world and that we leave a legacy of continuous giving to uplift our societies. I live by the motto that true leaders are selfless and ensure that the poorest in society are cared for; as such I will be donating the R5,000 of my prize winnings sponsored by Nedbank to;

As I move towards completion of my doctoral studies, I thank a consortium which has supported my vision and passion for the health system, provided constant opportunities, personal and professional development and learning which has attributed to any and all success. I thank colleagues such as Julie Jemutai who recently sent a heart-warming message, “You are an amazing woman, an inspiration honestly, been following a lot that you are doing and involved in and I am really proud of you”.

Finally, I live with the fond words and encouragement of our colleague and upcoming leader in our field who passed on too early. On meeting Jane Macha for the first time at the Consortia’s annual general meeting held in Kilifi last year, she said ‘Shakira, if there is one person I follow on social media, it’s you, your work, your updates, your spirit,  I am so inspired by you, keep it up!’ I certainly hope to live up to these expectations and achieve the realisation of health as a human right.

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