Warrior woman: From nurse to CEO tackling HIV, Aids and TB | Fin24

Warrior woman: From nurse to CEO tackling HIV, Aids and TB

Aug 08 2016 20:40

Colleen Khumalo started out as a nurse almost 20 years ago. Today she is pioneering a programme that was launched to tackle HIV, Aids and TB among workers.

Women can't surround themselves with timid ‘yes’ people if they want to become great leaders.

This is the advice from Colleen Khumalo who is studying towards a Master’s in Public Administration - Political Governance with a specific interest in Health Policy Development.

She has been at the helm of the South African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union (SACTWU) Worker Health Programme (SWHP) since January 2015.

"Unions in the country have a rich history of promoting the human rights, dignity and wellbeing of workers".

Many unions have also assumed a key position in the fight against HIV, Aids and TB, ensuring that the interests of workers from under-privileged communities are represented.

One such programme is the SWHP, which was founded in 1998, to help SACTWU manage the effects of the disease on its membership.  

The SWHP registered as an NPO in 2003 and broadened its reach, delivering services on a national basis to other communities affected by the HIV, Aids and TB pandemics.

"For the past 18 years, the SWHP has been part of the very fabric of many people’s lives in South Africa, delivering much needed and, in fact, life-changing health services to over 1.2 million people directly, and many more indirectly," said Khumalo.

During her tenure as CEO, SWHP has achieved the highest performance in Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) funded by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC).

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?

There’s so much complexity to success in business, more so for women. But I think it’s important to be clear on this issue, to think it through and really absorb your own personal path. Personally, think 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.

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

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 – e.g. 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?

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.

In our experience the following initiatives can make a difference:
- Health education and training which informs and encourages open dialogue.
- Providing access to reproductive health and family planning services.
- The provision of condoms and voluntary medical male circumcision.
- Counselling and testing.
- Support and treatment for HIV, Aids and TB. Including improved access to ART’s.

These programmes apply to both male and female employees across many industries, including clothing and textile factory workers, jail wardens, school teachers, their families, and their communities.

In terms of the social and psychological drivers of these pandemics like stigma, inequality and gender violence, we have focused on educating women and girls about their health and well-being.

Any effort to fight gender inequality such as – skills development, fighting unemployment - 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 & TB. Stakeholders including national, provincial and district level government departments, communities as well as local/international development agencies have made it possible for us to be effective in our work.

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For Women's Month, Fin24 aims to feature as many women as possible by giving them a platform to share their stories, celebrate their successes and in turn encourage other South African women to follow their dreams – no matter how impossible or challenging they may seem.

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