A couple of weeks ago, we were all thrilled to hear that Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, MD, author, and reproductive rights activist in South Africa, had been appointed to the position of Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health by the United Nations Human Rights Council. Her work has truly changed the reproductive rights space for the better.
I’ve worked closely with Dr. T since I started at Population Connection Action Fund, and I’ve looked up to her for quite a long time. I heard her keynote speech at Capitol Hill Days 2018 when I was a college student, and I was in awe of her eloquence. There was something about the way she was able to put into words what many of my girlfriends and I were feeling about the constant attacks on women’s rights all across the globe. I can say, wholeheartedly, that she empowered me to go even harder for women and fight for what was rightfully ours. She cares so deeply about human rights and social justice, and it shows.
I feel fortunate to call her a friend now.
I got the chance to interview Dr. T about her appointment personally, and let me say; I was not disappointed by the juicy details about what it’ll look like, and what her plans are for her newfound platform.
I started by asking her how she even came across the position:
She was in Geneva depositing off a report on behalf of the national human rights organization she works for, to the pre-working group on CEDAW, about violence against women in South Africa. While she was there, someone asked her if she knew about the open call for the position of Special Rapporteur at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
She had no idea it was happening, and there was a small window left for her to apply and get together all of the materials to make her application competitive. After many soul searching moments and messages of encouragement from her circles telling her that she just has to apply, she decided to go for it. Of course, she did her due diligence and research about the position (as any worthy applicant would do), and thought she was absolutely perfect for the job—it combined the two worlds of medicine and human rights activism, her specialties.
“When you’ve done advocacy work [internationally], specifically for your region (South Africa) as a civil society member, there are limitations on how much you can do. I had accomplished a lot in the region, so why not reach for the stars. I’ve been in this space for 13+ years. I thought, For the next 30 years, you can’t keep doing what you’ve been doing. As Special Rapporteur, my goal is to really uplift my previous work. There are other human rights spaces that I felt I had yet to tap into, so this position came at the perfect time.”
I then thought to myself, I haven’t even talked to her about what the position entails! That’s kind of important, right?
So I continued, “What does the job of Special Rapporteur look like? Specifically, yours, being one that’s focused on people’s right to health?”
She told me that she is still in the process of induction for the UN, but generally, the mandate is to investigate alleged human rights violations related to the right to health in different parts of the world—drawing up reports, detailing findings, and making recommendations to the Human Rights Council about violations and remedies are some of her duties. Her mandate also includes identifying trends and human rights offenses whilst communicating with states and other players about concerned parties. This means she is free to promote the realization of the rights in question, participate in conferences, and even engage national stakeholders.
When she is sent reports and conducts her investigation on these human rights violations, she gets to offer insights on what may be better to prioritize and what actions to take based on her expertise. She then advises the Human Rights Council about how to move forward.
After hearing that, I was intrigued to know more about her goals for her new appointment and what people can expect from her during her time as Special Rapporteur:
“You have to promote, develop, and advise on the right to health. It’s important to recognize that there have been people previously who have held this position, and for me, it’s about bringing a different lens to it and working together with other mandate holders to make those connections between the right to health and the issues that they work on example gender equality. They all relate to each other.
For example, if women are delaying hospital treatment because they may lose their jobs, then that is harming women. It’s not only an issue that is diminishing her right to health, but now, it’s a gender equality issue.”
She wants to center the restoration of human dignity in her work. She says:
“People should have the right to be vulnerable. It’s a part of being human. And while we’re at it, there needs to be a discussion on how pleasurable experiences are also a human right.
My morality, my religion, my internal compass is not the same as everyone else, but if we center the work around the restoration of human dignity, that won’t matter—it will be easy. We must recognize that injustice demands taking humanity away from people.”
I also got to ask her what she hopes to gain from this experience.
She told me that she is a “perpetual student” and knows that learning never really ends; however, she hopes to use her previous experiences to educate others. She referenced the process of writing her book, Dr. T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure, as an excellent way to frame this. She couldn’t have written the book without her experience as a medical provider, so in hindsight, it took her 12 years to write the book because it included the learning and the teaching.
I also want to mention that in our discussion, we got around to the topic of how her experiences as a Black woman, a South African woman, and (in her own words) a fat woman, will truly bring a lot of power to her appointment. Growing up in a militarized country as a Black woman during apartheid makes her incredibly familiar with the rights abuses others throughout the world are going through.
Finally, I asked her about the backlash she’s received since her appointment.
“Ultimately, I’m not in the job to be liked. This is about human rights, that’s what holds everything together.
All of my different parts can co-exist, and those who are committed to the journey of justice will show up regardless of if I’m an abortion provider or if I am a vocal advocate for sex workers. My mantra (taken from Loretta Ross) is you have to call instead of call out. I believe it’s up to people who are ignorant to come forward and unlearn (effectively call themselves out) and the work of calling in is about doing the work with love and care.
I don’t think everyone will agree and like what I’m saying all the time, and that is not my expectation, as I too do not always like or agree however the commitment is always to the protection of human rights.
I do the work to be knowledgeable on what’s going on, and my life’s mission is to “(re)center the margins”, elevate the people who are silenced, and use my position to benefit them. The work speaks for itself. The truth speaks for itself.
I am encouraged by the messages of support for me in this role as Special Rapporteur, coming from the region as well as internationally.”