Top UN Post for Namibian Woman

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By Frederick Philander WINDHOEK NAMIBIAN Cape Town trained medical doctor, Sophia Kisting-Cairncross, recently made history after being appointed to a top United Nation’s position in Geneva, Switzerland. She is one of only a handful of Namibians currently working within the UN system, as director of HIV/AIDS in the Workplace, compared to other African countries. “I was seconded to the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) by the University of Cape Town at which I worked for more than eleven years teaching and researching occupational medicine. Prior to my relocation to Europe, I acted as occupational health representative of the WHO, based in Cape Town,” Dr Kisting-Cairncross told New Era in a telephonic interview from her office in Geneva, Switzerland yesterday. The mother of three, who was born and bred in Rehoboth and went to school at Dr. Lemmer High, has come a long way from her rural childhood in southern Namibia. “My new job, which I have been doing since July this year, allows me to travel a lot under the auspices of the International Labour Organization, a UN affiliated body. In fact, I am considered to be the global coordinator of HIV/AIDS in the workplace, a great challenge in the tripartite system of working with governments, employers and workers in HIV/AIDS related matters,” she said. Since taking up her new job, Kisting-Cairncross has traversed the globe to countries such as Chile, Ukraine, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tunisia and the United States attending workshops, conferences and doing research. “The answer to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS lies within the problem itself, especially in Southern African countries,” she responded philosophically to a question on her overall view of the pandemic in the region. As global coordinator for HIV/AIDS in the workplace, Kisting-Cairncross says her greatest challenge will be to find ways to ensure people living with, or at risk of HIV, have a “real say” in funding programmes and grassroots-level programmes for government, trade unions and workers. “I have learned that governments in Southern Africa are tackling the pandemic in a very pragmatic way and manner, especially in prevention and treatment. They are very proactive in trying to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS on basically all levels,” said Kisting-Cairncross, only the second person to have been appointed to this senior position and the first Namibian. She has around fifty staff members working under her in Switzerland. “It’s important for us to take on senior positions in the global context,” she said, alluding to the fact that her heritage had been a mixture of the indigenous Nama and colonial influence, through her paternal German and maternal Scots forebears. “I am both from Europe and from Africa. This realisation is very important in my life,” she said, one of eight children whose father had in life been a stonemason and her mother a seamstress. Kisting-Cairncross remembers how her father was affected by his occupation, constantly exposed to fine dust, risking his lungs. “This influenced me greatly and I later developed an interest in the link between health and work. On the surface, medicine may have seemed an ambitious career choice. In those years, South West Africa was seen as a fifth province of South Africa. I was classified as Coloured. At school, I could choose maths or physical science at school, but not both. The options were needlework or agriculture,” she lamented. Kisting-Cairncross, who also worked for eight years as a medical doctor in Zimbabwe, Congo-Brazzaville and Zambia, knew she had more to give. “I come from a working family rooted in care-giving. My grandmother was a traditional midwife and she had a marked influence on me. Medicine was seen as a way to provide care,” she recalled. Cape Town was a long way from home for the 18-year-old. “Coming to UCT as a medical student in 1969 was an education in itself, an experience that could have sent any young woman back home across the Orange River. I was directed to the University of Stellenbosch because I spoke Afrikaans. But I couldn’t find accommodation. Coming to UCT was no easier,” she said. Like many other medical students of those years, Kisting-Cairncross remembers the indignity suffered by black students and patients alike. “I couldn’t examine patients from the white side of the hospitals. The white students had access to everyone. There was an unfair load of examinations on black patients,” she told New Era. Deeply influenced by the Black Consciousness Movement at UCT, she graduated in 1975, a turbulent time when young interns were challenged to make stark decisions, consciously resisting the authorities and supporting those who were disenfranchised. “When I met my husband, Eugene, a UCT-trained chemical engineer, he encouraged me to use my skills to uplift people. I chose to work in rural communities in need, influenced by my own heritage. I have never been interested in self-advancement,” she said. According to him, Sophia always had a special interest in occupational health for women, who often work in the shadows and are overlooked. “Women are the ones who wash the farm overalls by hand after the men have sprayed toxic pesticides. They have always been the ones sweeping the dusty workshops, inhaling asbestos and other hazardous substances. Yet, they have not been issued with protective gear. We need to look at risk assessment from a fresh perspective. We can’t adopt a linear approach in dealing with men’s and women’s health risks,” she said.