JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ndileka Mandela was at her home in Johannesburg, South Africa, just before the start of a national lockdown to stem the spread of the coronavirus, when she got the call.
A container filled with 10,000 sanitary pads for rural South African girls would not be able to leave Geneva due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a donor told her.
“My heart was so sore. These girls are stuck at home, there is no income to buy food let alone sanitary pads. Their dignity and their health are at stake,” she said in a phone interview.
Ndileka, 55, Nelson Mandela’s oldest grandchild, has committed her life’s work to tackling the challenges South African women face – mainly violence and period poverty – and fears the coronavirus pandemic will heighten inequalities.
Since the lockdown started on March 27 she has been using social media to communicate with women stuck indoors with abusers, to let them know they are not alone, and to encourage them to call police hotlines for help.
A few days into South Africa’s lockdown, local media reported that a 14-year-old was raped and murdered in Soweto township in Johannesburg with her body so badly brutalised that her family could only identify her by her clothes and birthmark.
“What makes men like this?” asked Ndileka.
Ndileka’s own experience of surviving a rape in 2012 further catapulted her towards advocating for women’s rights.
“I wanted to show people that even your partner can rape you,” said Ndileka, who shared her story about being raped in her own bed on Facebook in 2017 as part of the #MeToo movement and was messaged by hundreds of women sharing similar stories.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
In South Africa, around 3,000 women were murdered in 2018 – around one every three hours – which is more than five times higher than the global average, according to the World Health Organization.
“During this lockdown, many women are stuck inside homes with violent men,” Ndileka told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Police statistics show that they received 460 calls a day to their gender-based violence hotline in the first five days of the lockdown alone, nearly double from the weeks prior.
“Coronavirus is a magnifying glass on our social ills. In some places, women are last in the pecking order … We need to speak up,” she said.
Ndileka’s grandfather became a global icon for justice and reconciliation, peacefully guiding South Africa from oppressive white minority rule under the apartheid regime to a multi-racial democracy in 1994.
He served at the country’s first democratically elected president of South Africa from 1994 until 1999 and died after a lifetime of activism in December 2013.
Ndileka, who worked as a nurse for most of her life, said she wanted to continue her grandfather’s legacy, setting up a foundation in 2014 named after her father Thembekile – Nelson’s oldest child – who died in a car accident in 1969.
“My grandmother taught me that I may have the surname ‘Mandela’ but I need to work for everything in life and have my feet firmly planted on the ground,” she said. “She taught me not to idolise anyone, not even my grandfather.”
The Thembekile Mandela Foundation focuses on improving access to education and healthcare in rural South Africa, and delivers sanitary pads to 10,000 girls every month.
“When I made the first delivery of pads in 2014, girls accepted them like it was a pack of gold. They cried tears of relief. Can you imagine?” said Ndileka.
As soon as the lockdown ends, Ndileka is going to continue with her distribution.
“The nurse in me is worried about them using newspaper for now. The ink can be absorbed into the body and cause infections and scarring. They have enough to deal with already,” she said.
“This pandemic is at the top of everyone’s minds so other social ills have taken a back seat. We need to keep talking about them. We cannot lose sight.”
(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @KimHarrisberg; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.