“Our bodies are beautiful, they are healthy, they give birth, they give life and we do so much besides the pleasure that comes from our bodies. We must look after it, we must nurture it.” On episode 12 of Sisters Without Shame, Mzansi’s queen of epidemiology, Prof. Quarraisha Abdool Karim, unpacks sexual and women’s health, self-care and the life-saving power of knowledge. Knowing your body and what is normal for you is essential to maintaining your health, she says.
Karim is one of the world’s foremost medical and scientific authorities in the field of HIV and AIDS research, with ground-breaking contributions to understanding the evolution and impact of the HIV epidemic, while also fighting for the rights of those affected by HIV and AIDS.
Challenges of women’s health
Issues of sex, sexuality and sexual identity are not restricted to rural women alone. A shared challenge of all South African women is a lack of awareness of our bodies, Karim notes.
“We have been brought up to live in ignorance,” she says, adding that our own health is often our last priority. “Education, information, large distances to get to facilities, competing priorities in women-headed households… You have children, the elderly [you take care of] and then you must collect firewood… Your health becomes a lower priority.”
This is a counter-productive trend, however. Self-care is key to a woman’s well-being and her ability to take care of others, as you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Opportunities exist. Use them.
Karim highlights HIV/AIDS as foremost among women’s health issues since the 1990s. It has posed a demographic, health, social and cultural catastrophe for South African women.
Unfortunately, due to the vulnerability of women, the health policies that do exist are not often accessed. “We have health policies, and very good health policies particularly in South Africa. The thing is that the providers know it, but quite often the users don’t know it.”
She uses HIV-related care for pregnant women as a poignant example. Pregnant women will often be tested for HIV/AIDS from antenatal to post-partum care.
Make knowledge second nature
Karim believes that creating awareness should become second nature to South Africans. “We have to build this knowledge to where it is muscle memory and we are not thinking about it [so that] we know our bodies well. There is no shame in that knowledge. In fact, there is shame in a lack of knowledge and ignorance and when to seek care, and this starts with sexuality education.
“It is your body and you need to know about your body. You need to know how to look after your body, and that comes with knowledge as a prerequisite. Then we look at … when you need to seek care, how you overcome obstacles when you seek care… It is not about free healthcare but care that is accessible.”
Karim’s full interview can be heard on this week’s podcast episode.
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