• To EmpowHER ZA

Reclaiming Her PowHER (Women and SRH): Nadine Dirks

We spoke to Nadine Dirks about her journey to becoming a sexual and reproductive health advocate.

There are activists who choose to join social justice and political struggles because basic human empathy tells them that they are not free until the freedom of the oppressed is achieved, and a promise is made to ensure that future generations will live to see a greener tomorrow.

Then there are other activists who do not choose to fight, but are born into struggle movements fighting.

An example of one such activist is Nadine Dirks, who was forced into a life of advocacy. At the age of 13, she began advocating for herself because she depended on the public healthcare system for the treatment of stage four endometriosis therapy.

“My endometriosis was misdiagnosed and ignored because of my race many times. It was put down as STDs and ‘botched’ abortions.
"I learnt early on that I needed to actively speak up in order to bring attention to issues within the system that many people did not know of, or were possibly too afraid to speak up about out of fear of not being assisted,” the Cape Town local told To EmpowHER.

She also noticed how other girls and women were mistreated in the system by healthcare professionals. She says it was much worse for women who were darker skinned and lower class. She aims to expose injustices in the healthcare sector in her debut novel expected to be released in July 2021.

The mistreatment Nadine received was influenced by moral judgements, when placed in the framework of racism and colourism, and she says these are detrimental to the care of individuals seeking medical help.

“I was not seeking help for STDs or botched abortions. I had gone to see my GP because I had pain and abnormal swelling,” Nadine told To EmpowHER.

She says her GP gave her a letter for the local hospital where “a doctor for whatever prejudicial reasons decided to accuse me of [an abortion]”.

The question she poses is: why would it have mattered anyway? Doctors are here to treat people regardless of diagnosis.

She was prescribed basic pain killers for undiagnosed endometriosis and the delay in official diagnosis in 2014 resulted in recurring pain that she believes could have been properly managed and avoided.

She was taken to hospital for pain and swelling, which led to “the doctor [accusing] me of having had an abortion”.

“Turned out, during examination and testing I had a growth (an endometrioma) growing on my right ovary which caused the pain and swelling. I ended up having an emergency surgery for it.
"Thereafter, I was officially told the growth and symptoms were all because of endometriosis which by then was at stage 4,” she says.

As she began to fight for her health against a system that refused to give her the proper treatment and professional care she was mandated by law to receive, she also dedicated her time to educating people of their rights “in situations that are obviously fuelled by racist and sexist prejudice”.

Her experience led her to advocate for abortions, contraception and living unapologetically as “a fat Black woman who does not subscribe to European beauty standards”.

“Further, I advocate for young women to explore their bodies and sexualities freely and safely without moral judgements that are often placed on girls but not boys,” she says.

Nadine believes society needs to take time to listen to women when they are stating their needs, instead of deciding for them. She also argues that education forms a key role in destigmatising contraceptive methods and abortions. She says education can inform women on their legal rights, where to seek help and financial assistance.

“People still stigmatise women for needing abortions. It often comes with moral judgements, and religion and culture are used to keep women from deciding for themselves [what they should do about their bodies]. Women are hindered because even healthcare providers are often ignorant and use their own personal politics to impact providing procedures to people,” Nadine says.

Nadine aims to continue conversation around body politics and body positivity, while fighting back at a society that decides who she can be.

“I get to decide what I want to do with my body. Whether that is becoming a sex worker, having three children or getting an abortion. Getting to decide what is right for me is what true agency looks like. It also includes receiving accurate, unbiased and clear information regarding sexual and reproductive health,” she says.

One way she reclaims power over her body is by choosing which type of sanitary product is best suited to her. Nadine started using Miecup when she “[wanted] to find a menstrual cup that was owned by a South African”.

“I was elated to learn it was not just any South African but two Black women. I have since been on board as a fan of the brand. My experience has been excellent; the cup allows me to monitor my bleeding and I do not need to change as often, so it is a peace of mind tool. Further, it is also cost effective unlike other products that are not reusable,” she told To EmpowHER.

Nadine Dirks (right) at the announcement of #SayHerName report which tracks, describes and advocates for the right to life, dignity and work of sex workers in the country. Left to right: Heidi Schutter (Total Shutdown SA), Chriscy Bouw (attorney at Women's Legal Centre Cape Town), and Nosipho Vidima (human rights officer at SWEAT). Photo: Christi Nortier

The stigma around abortion originates from the policing and politicisation of women’s bodies, which results in young girls feeling uncomfortable, ashamed or insecure. Nadine gives advice for those who do not feel secure in who they are:

“Embrace all of you. You are a unique gift with a purpose that extends way beyond your physical body. In short, you are breathtakingly beautiful; there is no flaw in you.
"The sooner you learn that self-esteem, self-worth, self-care and self-love are internal workings that sustain you, the sooner you will realise that people cannot change how magnificent you are no matter how hard they try.”

She also recommends young girls and women read A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure by Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng and watch the Netflix series Sex Education.

© 2020 by TO EMPOWHER.