‘Add human rights defender to your resume’: How Tlaleng Mofokeng uses medicine to treat indignity

By Tlaleng Mofokeng

  • Doctors are trained to see women as a collection of organs and ailments, rather than people with their own stories and lives, says Tlaleng Mofokeng, a medical doctor and special rapporteur for the United Nations.  
  • When physicians treat women as people, the practice of medicine can be a powerful tool to restore people’s dignity — but only when doctors understand the ways in power systems such as racism, colonialism, imperialism and white supremacy continue to determine who is seen as fully human.

Before I was an activist and an author, I was perhaps the most frustrated medical doctor in South Africa.

I grew up in Qwaqwa, a rural town in an apartheid-era bantustan, now called the Free State. 

Because of the unjust conditions of the racist regime, I had no choice but to fight for survival; I didn’t choose activism, activism chose me. 

Today, I may be a rebellious Catholic, but when I was growing up I spent my school holidays at the monastery visiting the nuns.  

At the convent, I could choose one of two activities. I could do the stations of the cross (a 14-step Catholic prayer practice which commemorates Jesus Christ’s last day on Earth) for hours each day. Or, I could do something which I still think was the best decision of my life — I could help the nuns take care of the elderly. 

This experience made me want to be a doctor for as long as I could remember.

Women are people; not a collection of organs and ailments

This op-Ed was originally posted on Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism on October 12, 2022.