South Africa: Mandela, Gender Equality and Me

Women at work in Nigeria.

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We can be the generation that achieves a truly gender-equal society. As Mandela once said, it only looks impossible until it's done.

When I was 16, I took a ferry to Robben Island to meet my grandfather Nelson Mandela for the first time. That was 1981, and at the time Madiba (as he is fondly called in South Africa) had been incarcerated for close to 20 years. It was the first time I would meet the man who was my father figure (I lost my dad - his son - when I was only 4). It was the first time I would meet the man who I knew was a hero to millions in South Africa and beyond.

I had lived for this day, when I would finally have a conversation with Grandpa. At the time, a South African law dictated that you had to be at least 16 years old to meet political prisoners. You also needed to arrive alone. So, a young and jittery minor disembarked from the ferry one morning at the notorious island prison and walked the long corridor to a room where her life's dream would be fulfilled.

When I entered the room, I could see his characteristic ear-to-ear smile through the small window that was the only access between his holding area and the visitors' room. Even with his bright smile, I felt extremely nervous to meet the larger-than-life figure who was also my grandfather. He noticed this immediately and found a quick way to break the ice: he asked if I had a boyfriend. I chuckled, before saying I didn't.

That was Grandpa - he could put people at ease before addressing what was really on his mind. Soon we were talking easily about family and school. And then he wanted to know if I was looking after my sexual health. We talked about dating and if I'd had my first visit to the gynecologist and many other topics. It may sound awkward, but my first conversation about sex and sexual health was with my grandfather, and that on the first day I met him! That was him again, keen and intensely interested in women's health as a foundation for well-being and empowerment.

Over the years, I have asked myself what it is in Madiba that I inherited? What is the Mandela in me? I would like to think that it is his unwavering sense of justice. The belief that no one should go to bed hungry, that everyone has the right to good health care. The belief that women's rights are human rights and they must be fulfilled for societies to progress and thrive.

In my country, gender inequalities continue to expose women to numerous ills, including HIV. HIV prevalence among young women in South Africa is nearly four times that of men their age. Sexual violence plays a role in this shocking and unacceptable figure. The number of women who experienced sexual offenses jumped 53 percent from 2015 to 2017. This requires us to reflect on the lessons of my grandfather - we cannot shy away from the difficult conversations. We must address social norms that oppress women and entitle men. This cannot start early enough; our schools must be the incubators of a more just, equal and healthy society.

It is why my foundation, Thembekile Mandela Foundation, supports efforts to improve access to health and education in rural areas of South Africa. Inspired by Madiba's unwavering belief in the benefits of education and health in building a thriving nation, I have dedicated my life to help raise a generation of young people who can dismantle the barriers of gender inequality.

It is why I am also championing the work of the Global Fund and its partners in South Africa and beyond. The Global Fund partnership invests in programs that reduce the disproportionate vulnerability and health risks faced by girls and young women. It is appalling that nearly 1,000 young women and girls are infected with HIV every day across the world. It is time for the world to confront head on the gender norms that increase girls' and young women's vulnerability to HIV, and other health issues. The Global Fund is doing a replenishment this year - a fundraising effort to mobilize at least US$14 billion to invest in programs like these. We all must come together to support this effort to free communities from the burden of preventable diseases and create strong health systems.

Health and education are the bedrock of every society. This International Women's Day, as we celebrate the achievements of women and as we seek to create a fairer world, let us all find a way to invest in health and education - to level the playing field for young women and girls. If we do that, we can be the generation that achieves a truly gender-equal society. That may sound utopian, but to get there, we must believe. As Grandpa once said, it only looks impossible until it is done.

Ndileka Mandela is the founder of Thembekile Mandela Foundation and the first granddaughter of Nelson Mandela

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