Making Global Connections Personal: A Spotlight on RTI International’s Cape Town Projects

By Enelda Butler

The RTI Global Gender Center’s mission is to improve knowledge, policies, and programs worldwide to reduce gender inequities and disparities. Personal connections are instrumental in achieving these outcomes. It’s relationships—from building the affiliate network, partnering with other researchers, connecting with clients and participants, to sharing knowledge across the world— that help close this gap.

In the year that I’ve worked with the RTI Global Gender Center, I’ve always understood the importance of RTI’s gender work and its impact on women and girls worldwide. Through countless hours developing content for this very website, I’ve become familiar with hundreds of research projects and their results. However, because I work in an office in North Carolina, I wasn’t able truly grasp the full impact of the Center’s work until I saw it in action.

That changed in October, when I had the opportunity to visit South Africa and see a few projects first-hand. I volunteered during the Ending Gender Inequalities conference and was able to meet people from more than 30 countries united by a common goal of achieving gender equality. (For a recap of the event, check out my last blog post. And stay tuned to our website for the in-depth conference proceedings, which will be published soon.)

At the conference, I was particularly struck by the emphasis on personal connections. The conference speakers included researchers and policymakers, but just as importantly, activists and survivors. Women who experienced assault, female circumcision, and human trafficking were courageous enough to share their stories. Their moving personal stories motivated everyone in attendance to keep fighting until these inequalities are eradicated.

Continuing in the spirit of the conference, I was also able to visit two of RTI’s current gender projects. An unassuming office building serves as the headquarters for the Cape Town Young Women’s Health CoOp and Implementation Research for Vulnerable Women in South Africa (Principal Investigator: Dr. Wendee Wechsberg, RTI International). The local staff works across both projects, along with RTI researchers based in North Carolina and Washington, D.C and partners and collaborators in South Africa.

Thandeka Mkosana creates the client schedule for the next month.

The Cape Town Young Women’s Health CoOp, in collaboration with the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC), tests a gender-focused intervention for reducing substance use, victimization, and sexual risk behavior among young women. The project has completed enrollment with 500 participants, ranging from 16 to 19 years old. The intervention consists of a series of group workshops to educate young women about potential risks and improve their access to effective treatment and support services, if needed.

While visiting the site, I asked several staff members about their favorite part of their job. Thandeka Mkosana enjoys seeing how the interventions empower clients to make positive life changes, “Because they are teens, some of them are being controlled by their partners. We give them information to better handle certain situations.”

Feedback from the clients is valuable and is sometimes used to tailor the workshops to be more empowering.

Ground rules for group intervention workshops.

She continued, “In Workshop 2, we get to hear feedback from the first workshop, and they tell us that they’ve done things we taught them. They’re grateful for the information. We’re able to have an impact on the community. I’m excited and happy to make a difference.”

The staff do all they can to keep the clients motivated. For example, most workshops occur during the day, but they’ll have them on nights or weekends to accommodate the clients’ schedules. South Africa-based Co-Project Director Dr. Tara Carney of the SAMRC explains, “That shows the commitment of the staff, that they’re flexible to make it happen.”

When the workshop series is completed, the relationships with the clients aren’t over. There are follow-up appointments both 6 and 12 months afterwards to assess client progress. According to staff member, Liesl Izaks, “My favorite part is to see that we’ve motivated some of them to change their lives.”

Drs. Felicia Browne and Tara Carney, Co-Project Directors, (far right) with site visitors.

The Implementation Research for Vulnerable Women in South Africa study, in collaboration with Kheth’Impilo, brings the Women’s Health CoOp intervention to City Health clinics  and substance abuse treatment clinics in Cape Town. Over the course of four cycles, this study has reached 480 women living with HIV who use alcohol and other drugs to help them take their HIV medications and reduce their behaviors that are risky and keep them from adhering on their medications.

Implementation Science staff member Thandolwetu Kosani is the only male staff member on this project, but he wants others to join him. He said, “Since there are so few men in these situations, I try to get more men to support this.” As he said this, he pointed to a button he was wearing with the words ‘Ending Gender Inequalities.’ This reminded me of the last day of the Ending Gender Inequalities conference, when the conference center staff asked to wear these buttons, which were made for the event. It was a small gesture but shows that a common goal can bring us all together.

Thandolwetu Kosani shares a message on the importance of gender equality.