UKZN PhD graduate says research can improve women’s rights

Sethembiso Mthembu graduated with a PhD in social sciences from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) on Friday. Her research tackled the political economy of the contraceptive Depo Provera.


Mthembu is the deputy director for Research and Policy Analysis in the Ministry in the Presidency Responsible for Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities. She is also the co-founder of Her Rights Initiative (HRI).

Mthembu’s research investigated the political economy of the injectable contraceptive Depo Provera.

“The choice of topic was motivated by the research, advocacy and human rights work I have been leading on forced and coerced sterilisations of HIV positive women in South Africa. I am one of the victims of forced sterilisations.”

said the UKZN graduate.

She says her eyes opened when she read a UKZN study on forced sterilisations of HIV positive women. It exposed her to the global politics of fertility of women sitting on the margins of society.

“I began to realise that fertility control is not a technical or practical mistake, or the behaviour of bad doctors, but rather a systematic enterprise rooted in the global political economy. I decided to dig deeper for my PhD,”

she said.

Mthembu investigated the international influence on the ideology and policies of contraceptives in South Africa.

She shone a spotlight on international organisations responsible for health and population development such as the United Nations, human rights and philanthropist organisations, private foundations, drug companies, and international research and innovation agencies.


The newly minted PhD graduate from UKZN recommends the introduction and or revisiting of policies and programmes that reflect an improvement on women’s rights.

Mthembu believes policies should also reflect autonomy for women concerning contraceptives and reproductive health.

Mthembu believes that her UKZN research will assist in resolving the current challenge faced by health institutions as they deal with volumes of women who come forward about forced contraception, sterilisations and or womb removals that were done on them without their consent.

“My study exposes evils that women were subjected to without their knowledge. This has the potential to mobilise women in the communities so that they critically engage with health systems, understanding that in fact, health could be an institution of oppression of women.”

says Mthembu.

Mthembu says her study identified a solidarity between nurses and the women they help.

“This gives the opportunity for both to work together to improve the situation of women in as far as fertility control is concerned. The control of women’s fertility, bodies and governability of women’s bodies is on top of the agenda in various governments around the world as well as international institutions,”

says the UKZN graduate.

Mthembu thanked her family, friends, and UKZN supervisor for their support.

“I am proud to continue to be a role model for young women and girls in my family and extended family. With all the challenges I have had in life such as teenage pregnancy, living with HIV, and mothering a severely disabled child, I was able to start university education at the age of thirty and have progressed to this level,”

says Mthembu.

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