Natasha Gillespie

Project co-ordinator: Critical Review Project, Human Sciences Research Council

South Africa’s Constitution protects the rights of people regardless of sexual orientation, but Natasha Gillespie knows that this too often doesn’t extend into real life. Committed to improving appropriate and acceptable sexual and reproductive health and HIV services for sexual minorities, she is working to develop a comprehensive training module for inclusion in the curriculum of healthcare students. In South Africa, she says, this type of education should start at primary school level.

Via her PhD in diversity studies, however, she’s hoping to start with medical students in a bid to help improve the healthcare experiences of sexual and gender minorities. “I believe one of the most important ways to change the way people treat others is through education,” says Gillespie (28) who has been awarded multiple scholarships for her academic achievements, and published and presented her research in international peer-reviewed journals and at local and international conferences. Based at the HSRC research site in Sweetwaters, a semi-rural township outside Pietermaritzburg, she says she sees some of the worst possible treatment of people who are considered “different”.

“In most countries, social change usually comes ahead of policy. But in South Africa democracy and our Constitution gave us the policy, and we expected social reform to follow. “There is still so much oppression, like corrective rape for example, that it’s clear policy is not translating into action,” she says. Gillespie also manages a multi-national research project incorporating seven eastern and southern African countries. Her work takes place in South Africa, Namibia, Malawi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, so she travels extensively. Through this work, she helps map the sexual health and HIV services for men who have sex with men. “These are among society’s most repressed groups, and I hope my extensive research and publications, reflecting their lived experience, can be used to inform essential policy development,” she says. “

Sometimes it’s difficult for me to understand how one human can treat another so badly just because of sexual orientation. But I know that data is a vital start to policy development that will ensure protection, and we are beginning the data collection phase now. “It’s a relatively new field, but one in which I believe I can really help make a difference,” says Gillespie.

— Di Caelers

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