As a migrant woman in South Africa, accessing the healthcare system can be an overwhelming experience. Shortly after its foundation, Women’s Platform quickly noticed that many refugee and migrant women were not accessing health care due to their lack of fluent English or valid documentation. For others, accessing reproductive healthcare or contraception was restricted by family or husbands. Some migrant women had never had a mammogram – and had reported being too nervous to ever get tested for HIV or STDs.
In response to this, the Women’s Platform partnered in 2016 with SHAWCO to provide a ‘pop-up clinic’ where women can access advice, regardless of their nationality or status – and, as they are regulars of Scalabrini Centre, they don’t have to explain to their families or husbands where they are going!
SHAWCO, which stands for Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation, is a student-run NGO based at the University of Cape Town. Among other activities, they run free clinics, run by volunteer medical and allied health science students. This is a mutually beneficial programme whereby the Women’s Platform participants receive valuable medical advice whilst student doctors gain experience and practical knowledge.
The clinic at Scalabrini, which is due to run every two months, provides pap smears, mammograms, HIV and STD testing as well as referrals to other specialists and medical facilities. SHAWCO also identifies people who require mental health referrals – a common issue affecting migrant women. The clinic even hosts a pharmacist, who prescribes medication at a cheaper price than regular pharmacies.
Accessing healthcare in South Africa as a migrant or refugee woman is often complicated by issues around documentation. In terms of the South African Constitution, Section 27 confirms that anyone in South Africa has the right to ‘emergency medical treatment’. Furthermore, the Health Care Act states that the clinics and community health centres funded by the State must provide pregnant, lactating women and children below the age of six years who are not members or beneficiaries of medical aid schemes must be provided with free health services. Aside from this, migrant and refugee women who are not appropriately documented will have trouble accessing public health care if it is not an emergency. For many women, being undocumented is not a choice; accessing valid documentation can be a struggle as it can require travelling to other South African cities on a regular basis to validate documentation. Whilst such women can get documentation advice from the Advocacy Programme at Scalabrini (or other similar services in Cape Town), acting on that advice can take time and money – whilst health ailments persist.
Three SHAWCO clinics have already taken place at Scalabrini – and the Women’s Platform welcomes around fifteen women per session, to ensure each woman has sufficient time with a medical practitioner. Amy Shackelford, who manages the partnership, explains that SHAWCO is trying to reach out to different medical departments in order to provide for the complex medical needs that pertain to migrant women. “At the next clinic, for example, occupational therapy is running a support group while women are waiting, and the speech therapy department want to start referrals for migrant children – so it is exciting that this service is well-used and starting to grow.”