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Driving action for women’s health in rural South Africa

Women in South Africa, particularly those in rural communities, need better access to specialist healthcare – and better education around how, and when, to seek treatment. Ahead of International Day of Action for Women’s Health on 28 May, the Tshemba Foundation is calling on obstetric and gynaecological specialists to step up and take action for women everywhere. Tshemba is a non-profit organisation that recruits medical volunteers to provide life-changing support at Tintswalo Hospital in rural Acornhoek, Mpumalanga.

“In rural communities, clinics and primary healthcare facilities are often not equipped to offer specialist obstetric and gynaecological services. Where these services are available, limited community knowledge, and trust, further inhibit doctors from servicing women in need. As a result, we’ve seen consistently high cases of cervical cancer – one of the most preventable forms of cancer, provided its detected early. This is just one example of a health issue that impacts a woman’s ability to look after her family, or secure an income, which has a domino effect on the community”, says Dr Nicole Fiolet, Women’s Health Project Manager at Tshemba Foundation.

Maternal and menstrual healthcare also remain highly stigmatised in some population groups. Education, combined with an increased presence of specialists, is key to breaking the taboo surrounding female healthcare. This means more women will feel safer to seek treatment. Obstetrician-gynaecologist volunteers at Tshemba contribute to this mission, through both patient care, and engagement with the Tintswalo community.

“Very few women in our community who should be getting pap smears visit their health clinic to receive them. This is just one element of female healthcare that is very important for long-term well-being. We also find that many tend to accept, and ignore, abnormal symptoms, such as bleeding outside their menstrual cycle, or after they have gone through menopause. These can be signs of advanced-stage cancer, that has progressed too far for treatment to be effective. This is why driving individual and collective health education focused on consistent screening is so important,” says Dr Fiolet.

Sister Lettie Mogakane, who has worked at Tintswalo since 1998, has seen the impact of Tshemba volunteers first-hand. “The biggest problem in this community is the lack of education. But, when the doctors talk to the community – such as speaking to schools, or spending time with patients to help them understand their own well-being – it spreads awareness and builds trust in the system. We’ve seen how successful this has been in encouraging more people to seek specialist care.”

In addition to education, volunteers also improve access to critical healthcare for women; “Through Tshemba’s intervention, we have reduced turnaround time for certain procedures, such as abnormal pap smear treatment, from three separate hospital visits, to one 30-minute visit We have also successfully driven an increase in women visiting the hospital to receive care specific to female health – such as pap smears, ultrasounds, and access to safe contraceptive methods,” says Dr Fiolet.

As a Tshemba volunteer, obstetric-gynaecologist specialists receive complimentary, self-catering accommodation at the organisation’s unique Volunteer Centre in Moditlo Private Game Reserve. In addition to clinical interventions, volunteers can expect to manage acute referrals from Tintswalo Hospital and the surrounding clinics, as well as teaching and writing of foundational management protocols for common outpatient care.

To date, Tshemba has hosted 274 volunteers from around the world. Tshemba welcomes both long-term and short-term medical and allied health professionals, who can significantly impact the lives of people living in low resource settings. To find out more, visit www.tshembafoundation.org/volunteer-programme