Meet Dr. T — An Advocate for Aligning Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health

By: Maryalice Yakutchik

March 24, 2021

Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng is a medical doctor, sexual and reproductive health rights expert, and AlignMNH Steering Committee member. Her expertise spans public health, comprehensive sexuality education, training and facilitation, and content production. She is a board member of several initiatives including the Safe Abortion Action Fund and the Global Advisory Board for Sexual Health and Wellbeing, and also serves as a Special Rapporteur on the right to health as appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner.

The physician-author-activist- social influencer spoke to Maryalice Yakutchik, Communications Manager at Jhpiego, earlier this month about her work, goals, and role with AlignMNH. You can catch Dr. Tlaleng as a Moderator at the Opening Forum of the AlignMNH Collective, taking place April 20 and 21, 2021.

Below is an excerpt from the interview. To read the full conversation check it out on Jhpiego!

You’re incredibly busy with so many interests. Where does AlignMNH fit in?

Dr. T: As a clinician who takes care of women before and after birth, I think there is so much globally that we achieve by working together. If you look at maternal mortality and the very high rates of negative health outcomes, they are closely related to the failure to realize the right to the highest available standard of health. The important issues of maternal and newborn health resonate with all my work, especially my role as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health.

Please describe that role for us?

Dr. T: Basically, the mandate is to protect the right to health of all persons. Among the responsibilities is presenting annual reports to the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly, which involves monitoring the situation of the right to health throughout the world and, importantly, noting emerging trends and advising on best practices.

The synergy between my roles at the UN and on AlignMNH helps me to not only diagnose where things are not working, but also amplify what is working, and assist those in other parts of the world to replicate it. I refer to it as the “operationalization” of the right to health. Which means how we use the different types of interconnected rights to ensure that everyone realizes the full right to health, with a focus on those who are vulnerable and marginalized, which mothers and newborns tend to be in many countries.

Can you comment on some emerging trends?

Dr. T: The biggest is the use of digital interventions and innovation in health care; the use of telehealth and virtual consultations, which, pre-COVID-19, were not possible. This has benefited so many, especially people in rural areas, where maternal and newborn mortality rates are high because of delays in accessing care.

In Uganda, for instance, more people can access contraception now because of an app used by motorbike drivers who transport reproductive health commodities.

The issue of sexual and reproductive health rights, when addressed comprehensively, often determines health outcomes in the birthing period, in the antenatal period. I’m fascinated about how different countries offer comprehensive information and link people to services for sexual and reproductive health, including postpartum, and for the vaccination of children. It’s a big concern when you have health systems resources diverted to COVID-related responses. If, at the very least, we are able to collect the data and keep people mapped into services, I really like where we are going with digital health.

The virtual forum in April has the objective of setting a tone for a decade of continued learning and collective action to drive progress for maternal and newborn health and well-being.  What kind of tone?

Dr. T: It’s really about accountability, and being honest about what hasn’t worked and why. The reason AlignMNH is needed in the first place is there are things that haven’t happened that should have. It’s also about global solidarity and coming together to commit ourselves—or recommit ourselves—to the goals, and realizing that we are now under pressure, and that COVID-19 has not made it any easier.

COVID is like this leaking bucket and no one knows when the leak is going to stop. It’s taking tremendous human resources . . . all the health workers we have lost . . . when will we get them back? So many countries have really terrible nurse- and doctor-to patient ratios.

How can health systems begin to recover from COVID, and global targets be achieved?

Dr. T:  One way is realizing the importance of community health workers, and investing in them.

I like to think about simple things we can do that can give us a lot of results; things we that will have a ripple effect and touch as many lives as possible.

There’s so much that we can that we can do if we just focus on the basics and not forget that our goal to save mothers’ and babies’ lives is interconnected with the right to health. 

Maryalice Yakutchik is a Communications Manager at Jhpiego.