An approach to empower women is to help empower them to have agency over their sexual and reproductive health, says Ms Nqobile Ngubane who graduated with a Master’s degree in Social Sciences from the Centre for Culture, Communication and Media Studies (CCMS).
Ngubane’s study analysed women’s perceptions of the acceptability of vaginal health product use and further explored the inclusion of women in HIV prevention research.
According to Ngubane, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) has the highest number of HIV infections in South Africa. Adolescent girls and young women are at a higher risk of contracting HIV compared to males and this is due to the biological make-up of the vaginal track, as well as social and cultural factors that relate to the limited ability of women to negotiate sex with their partners. Some vaginal practices and accompanying product use can increase the risk of HIV infection and bacterial vaginosis among women. This study explores the current vaginal product uses among young women in selected areas of KwaZulu-Natal, categorises these products into four key product classifications, and thereafter expands to further understand methods of product use and reasons for product use.
Ngubane’s research findings showed that women in KZN use various vaginal products, such as homemade concoctions and traditional herbs, mostly for male sexual pleasure instead of prioritising safe sex and hygiene. The results showed that the application preferences of women varied, with some choosing to use ingestible vaginal products while others preferred the directly applied products.
‘This is a significant concern to health organisations and communities as women remain at the centre of infection,’ she said. ‘Prioritising male sexual pleasure over protection against HIV is a key driving factor for the spread of HIV within these specific communities. ‘Women need to prioritise their sexual and reproductive health over male sexual pleasure as this will lead to a healthier and stronger society.’
During her academic journey, Ngubane faced adversity. At the age of 15, she lost both her parents due to illness and was taken in by her maternal grandmother who passed away in April 2020.
‘Not only did I lose the person who supported me emotionally and financially, but I also lost a roof over my head, leaving me homeless. Being an only child. I didn’t have siblings or any close relatives to turn to, but was determined to complete my studies. As an unfunded postgraduate, I sometimes went to bed on an empty stomach because of lack of financial support,’ she said. ‘I also had no stable accommodation and often stayed with friends willing to assist.’
Ngubane thanked her friends and supervisor Professor Eliza Govender for being her support system. ‘These individuals supported me emotionally, academically and even financially at times. Their support uplifted me when I felt nothing good would ever come out of an orphaned, homeless rural girl from Bergville!’
A friend, Ms Zanele Nxumalo, said: ‘With all the challenges she has faced, Nqobile has proven herself to be a strong woman, focused on being an academic success. I am proud of her.’
Advising other students, Ngubane said, ‘God always rewards hard work even if you feel like you or your efforts are not good enough. He will bless those efforts.’
She plans to enrol in UKZN’s Culture, Communication and Media Studies (CCMS) PhD programme, focusing on health communication and community engagement.