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

  • 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.
  • Mofokeng was a speaker at Goalkeepers 2022 in New York City. This is an edited version of her speech.


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

At medical school, we were bio-medically trained. In practice, the conditions we worked under meant we didn’t have the time to consider the wide range of experiences patients had and how those things impacted their health.

Often, you’ll hear public health experts say that women need to know that early detection for breast or cervical cancer can save their lives. 

But what does it take, practically, for a poor rural woman to make multiple visits to a clinic for a screening test? They may have to wait months for their results and even longer to be referred to a specialist should they need treatment. 

Many women have to choose between competing needs for themselves and their families. Sometimes it’s about making a decision between putting petrol in the car or buying food for the household.

I realised that we, as doctors, were being trained to see patients — especially women — as a collection of organs and ailments.

Women were no more than expectant mothers or future caregivers or potential cervical cancer cases.

At no time did we stop to consider that they were individuals with their own stories, desires and aspirations.

Safe abortion saves lives

These days, I see the practice of medicine as a powerful tool in the restoration of people’s dignity.

That means understanding the ways in which racism, colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism (discrimination in favour of able-bodied people) and transphobia have multiple and compounding effects.

These systems of power continue to determine who is seen as fully human. 

That is why in my capacity as the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health, I submitted an amicus (friend of the court) brief to the United States (US) Supreme Court, at the time it  was considering overturning Roe v. Wade, a court ruling that ensured the right to an abortion in the United States for nearly 50 years

I wrote to the court that abortion rights are human rights. When a pregnant person asks for a safe abortion, they are asking for control over their own body and self-determination of their own future. They’re asking for the ability to continue their education or to earn a living.

As a proud abortion provider, I am telling you that safe abortions save lives.

I’m worried that the US court’s decision to scrap the right to terminate a pregnancy in June takes us back to a darker time. They are already hinting at a long list of rights that might be taken away too — LGBTQIA+ and same-sex marriage rights, as well as the right to contraception.

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The function of freedom is to free someone else

We are truly living in challenging times. I am tired.

But there is one thing that gives me hope: more and more people are practising their professions in service of human rights.

Elected leaders and those in positions of power may not be doing much, but we are a community of doers.

We, the goalkeepers, are leaders at this moment.

And so, I have one request: Add “human rights defender” to your resume.

The right to health is indivisible and it’s key for gender equality and necessary for sustainable development, peace and security.

As goalkeepers, we must ensure that people realise their rights and move from surviving to thriving.

As the late novelist Toni Morrison said: “You are moving in the direction of freedom and the function of freedom is to free somebody else”.

Tlaleng Mofokeng is a medical doctor and the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health. She was speaking at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers meeting held in New York City on 20 and 21 September. Watch her full speech here

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Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng is a United Nations special rapporteur on the right to health and the author of Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure. She's the former vice-chairperson of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition and also a former member of the Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa.