Sethembiso Mthembu: a victim of forced sterilisation whose experience inspired a doctorate

Sethembiso Mthembu’s UKZN PhD research was inspired by forced sterilisation, a concept she is unfortunately not a stranger to. Photo UKZN/Rajesh Jantilal
Sethembiso Mthembu’s UKZN PhD research was inspired by forced sterilisation, a concept she is unfortunately not a stranger to. Photo UKZN/Rajesh Jantilal


As a victim of forced sterilisation, Sethembiso Mthembu tackled the controversial usage of the contraceptive injection depo-provera through her PhD research with the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

With the thesis titled The Political Economy of Contraceptives in Post-Apartheid South Africa, Mthembu graduated on May 17.

A deputy director for research and policy analysis in the department of women, youth and persons with disabilities, her research investigated South Africa’s policy around securing depo-provera for women. She noted how controversial securing it during apartheid South Africa was, violating women’s rights.

READ: Retired teacher proves it’s never too late to get a PhD

Her study exposes the evils that women were subjected to without their knowledge. It presents recommendations to improve women’ rights and autonomy to make their own and better choices about contraceptives.

“The study identifies solidarity between nurses and the women who use the [contraceptive] services. It gives an opportunity for the two to collaborate to improve the situation of women in as far as fertility control is concerned in the country.

“The control of women’s fertility, and governability of women’s bodies is on top of the agenda in various governments around the world as well as international institutions. This is even more so with the outbreak of Covid-19 where fertility control is on the rise because of increased rates of poverty, child and teenage pregnancy,” Mthembu explained.

The 47-year-old is also the co-founder of the Her Rights Initiative, women’s rights organisation focused on the issues facing HIV positive women in all their diversity. She said her research topic was motivated by extensive reading, advocacy and human rights work.

She said: 

I have been reading on forced and coerced sterilisations of HIV positive women in South Africa. I am also one of the victims of forced sterilisation. I realised that fertility control is not a technical or practical mistake or a behaviour of bad doctors but rather a systematic enterprise rooted in global political economy.

Mthembu said she decided to dig deeper for her PhD research and investigated how international organisations responsible for heath and population development and innovation agencies influenced the ideology and policies of contraceptives in post-apartheid South Africa.

She believed her research would assist in resolving the current challenge faced by health institutions as they deal with volumes of women who are coming forward about forced contraception, sterilisations and womb removals that were done on them without their consent.

The journey has not been easy for Mthembu who started her university education aged 30. “Today I am proud 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 have been able to progress to this level.”


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