Marion Stevens has always been drawn to remedying inequality. A 20-year veteran of the reproductive rights movement in South Africa, Stevens’ introduction to women’s health care came early on in her life, during her first career as a midwife and nurse.
Her health care training occurred during South African apartheid, and Stevens was very conscious of the vast inequalities not only between Black and Whites, but also men and women. Yet these differences were not addressed in the training she received, which raised her consciousness about the need to incorporate a social justice framework into the health care system. As Stevens explains in an interview with the African Gender Institute:
I was drawn to women's health in particular when I saw black women dying of cervical cancer, black women severely ill and dying from septic abortions, women exposed to domestic violence and sexual abuse. I learnt so much about how these (dis)eases and illnesses are so fundamentally entwined with patriarchy and misogyny. I was slowly born into this space where I see myself as wanting the world to be a better place for women.
Stevens felt herself drawn towards the movement to increase women’s access to reproductive health services and began to conduct research studies and advocate for better policies that address South Africans’ health needs.
With the African Gender Institute, Stevens conducted a study of 80 transgender South Africans to document and expose the vast disparities in access to sexual and reproductive health services. She also developed a training guide for health care employees to teach them how to focus on the reproductive health needs of transgender persons and other populations with unique concerns.
Stevens also took the lead in developing two critical South African policies. The first was the Learner Pregnancy Strategy for the Department of Basic Education, which incorporated comprehensive sex and reproductive health education into public school curriculum. In an interview with Mail and Guardian, Stevens explained the importance of teaching young children the basic facts of sexual health:
Children receiving such education from as young as five tend to engage in less risky sex, have fewer violent sexual encounters and are less likely to fall pregnant as they’ve been empowered to make informed choices.
The second major policy Stevens took the lead in drafting was the Adolescent Health Policy for the Department of Health, which integrated reproductive health services with HIV/AIDs testing and treatment.
Stevens is credited for advancing reproductive health rights and services among young people in South Africa, including populations that are more vulnerable to negative health consequences.
In addition to focusing on South African policy, Stevens also looks to international policy to understand how actions of other countries can shape access to health care. She recently commented on the devastating effects of the Global Gag Rule under the Bush Administration, which banned U.S. funding for overseas organizations that work on reproductive health issues
President Obama rescinded the Gag Rule, but President Trump reinstated it, causing panic among activists and organization leaders around the world, including Stevens. In an opinion piece for The Daily Maverick, Stevens explained how the restriction of funding does nothing to actually stop abortions, but rather serves to severely undermine women’s health:
The consequences [of the Global Gag Rule] for South African women have been devastating: only 40% of public surgical abortion facilities are operational, medical abortion drugs are not on our essential drug list, health providers opt out of providing women with abortion services without following the proper procedures for referral. It is estimated that 50% of abortions in SA are provided by illegal or informal providers and almost 10% of our maternal deaths are from unsafe abortions with 30% being from AIDS-related conditions.
Currently, Stevens is a Coordinator at the WISH Institute, an organization that supports implementation and progress in regards to women’s reproductive health in South Africa. Specifically, the Institute is committed to supporting the creation of networks that allow the sharing of ideas as well as endorsing advocacy actions in relation to women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.
HowToUse applauds Stevens’ work and looks forward to following her journey as she fightstirelessly to expand access to much-needed health services for women in South Africa.
Interested in learning more about reproductive rights activists? Stay tuned to the HowToUse blog, where we’ll be regularly featuring new leaders from around the world.