Before Naima Abrahams appeared in more than 90 public health publications, she was a nurse. She saw things in Cape Town hospitals that strengthened her resolve to get justice.
The South African public health system of the 1980s included a certain disregard for the disenfranchised. This often left her in tears: “I felt like I didn’t care.”
Her difficulties as a nurse were exacerbated by the expectation that she would get used to people’s pain, that she, too, would soon begin to practice the contempt built into the system.
She remembers how medical workers were openly dismissive of patients who came to the hospital drunk, who sent them to the back of the line or left them to stand in line outside in the cold. This puts a lot of pressure on her.
“I realized that I didn’t want to be part of a system that tells me that I shouldn’t take care of a person because he is drunk or because he is black,” she says. “I thought I couldn’t continue being a nurse in this system – it would change me.”
So, she took a year off from hospitals to get her public health qualification and then went back to work at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town. There, at last, Abrahams was allowed to show compassion. She felt like she really cared.
By 1989, Cape Town was teetering between hope and despair. The apartheid regime was living out its last days. There were rumors of political assassinations and detentions. But the promise of change was stubborn.
Abrahams is already in trouble for her political activism. The municipalities denied her employment.
For years, the message from the underground, from the structures of the banned ANC-in-exile, has been for the people to arm themselves with knowledge to ensure that the new state that is to be built has a knowledge bank ready. It was there that she was inspired to take up a position as a field researcher working under a surgeon at the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) in Cape Town.
She hated it.
Women are sometimes beaten. It just happens
Many, many years later, in the background of the Abrahams home in the Pinelands, the telltale sounds of a household slowly waking up in the middle of a December morning can be heard. Abrahams is a mother of two, married to a man she describes as “much smarter” than her, and she is devoted to her family.
She is deeply indebted to the people who helped her chart a successful course in epidemiology – more than she ever thought she would want, more than she could ever imagine. She thought she just wanted to be a nurse — and even that was quite a feat for a working-class woman in Cape Town in those days.
Sitting now in an armchair in the living room, looking out of the glass doors into the small garden, Abrahams takes a deep breath. She seems completely at ease, contented.
But she winces slightly at the memory of her first job at SAMRC.
This job was supposed to give her the opportunity to do something about injustice. All talk was about the new state, which was to be built in the near future. And healthcare will be an integral part of that.
However, her superior was obsessed with weapons.
He began each morning by talking about his weapons collection. There was no salvation. In the trauma wards where she worked, she was surrounded by the lingering effects of firearms.
“My hatred for guns started there.”
Years later, she published articles showing that guns play an important role in violence against women in South Africa, especially in the killing of intimate partners.
It was there, and among the victims of gun violence, in her first job as a researcher, that she began to notice evidence of violence against women. For most others, this was an unremarkable phenomenon that was not questioned.
Women are sometimes beaten. And sometimes they ended up in the hospital. It just happened. The consequences were not considered worthy of deep reflection, especially by epidemiologists.
“There was a woman with a blue eye that I met in the trauma ward that no one asked about.”
Abrahams is thoughtful – as if the memory weighs on her again.
But she struggled with the job—she never liked it—until epidemiologist Salim Abdul Karim, who also worked for SAMRC, suggested that she apply for another position.
She wasn’t sure she was right for the job, but she applied anyway. And she got it.
“Violence, Violence Everywhere”
Things fared much better in her new role as junior researcher Rachel Jukes.
At first, the couple intended to focus on reproductive health and contraception. “We started with abortions,” says Abrahams.
But a disturbing pattern emerged in their conversations with women.
“Violence. We have experienced violence everywhere. We go and talk to teenagers about pregnancy, we experience violence. We go to talk to nurses, we hear about violence against patients.”
It informed a new trajectory.
Her master’s work was to talk to men about violence against them. In many ways it was groundbreaking work. Few people thought of talking to criminals.
Asking men how and why they abuse will also be the subject of her doctoral dissertation.
Meanwhile, SAMRC was building a world-class women’s health research center.
“I sincerely believe that we have become widely known as leaders in the field of violence against women around the world, having created this field here in South Africa, although our politicians do not always pay attention to us.”
Her work on intimate partner violence explored a number of topics such as risk factors for committing intimate partner violence; femicide; health sector response to gender-based violence; sexual abuse services; HIV prevention after sexual violence; HIV stigmatization; mental health and gender-based violence as a health risk factor.
At the heart of her research is a key finding: men can engage in their own violence. And the key recommendation to help society stop violence is to believe in women.
This is what Abrahams has dedicated herself to for over three decades – collecting and analyzing numbers to change the lives of the people behind them. She is now the director of a women’s health group, which she joined and helped create.
“Research on gender-based violence is not possible without some activity. [built in]”She said.
Progress often seemed agonizingly slow, she said.
It’s hard to believe that violence against women in South Africa is on the decline when the news is still full of stories of women being attacked or killed by their partners. But changes are happening.
Earlier this year, Abrahams and her colleagues published a study showing that since the 1990s, the number of femicides that kill women in South Africa has dropped rapidly and dramatically. Indeed, since 1999, when the unit first began researching this subject, the rate has halved.
“There is good news,” says Abrahams. “I think we can celebrate a little.
This sort of understatement is typical of Abrahams, a PhD scientist and the first woman in her family to graduate from high school, but who still describes her academic and career trajectory as being “in the right place at the right time.”
Portrait of a humble pioneer
Abrahams never set out to be a pioneer. She never stopped to think she was breaking barriers.
But attending lectures for her master’s degree at the University of the Western Cape with a 10-day-old baby, Abrahams has always been different. She is not affected by what she does, no matter how impressive it may be. She just does it – if she didn’t go to lectures, she would fall behind in her studies. So, of course, she took the baby with her. She didn’t think about it. It was just practical. She is fully guided by the power of her convictions to lend a helping hand to others.
To her family, Abrahams is a bulwark against the grief, anxiety, sickness, and isolation that sometimes disrupts our lives, and a source of strength, understanding, and guidance for her community.
Naima Abrahams is truly a product of her time. The work is also out of place – a city teeming with contradictions. She is truly a product of the people she has met along the way. She claims to be lucky, but exaggerates her luck. Although she is lucky, like all successful people, she is also unique.
She didn’t stop caring when so many others were already tired. She proves in the most persistent way – in herself and in her work – that sometimes the only thing that is needed to defeat evil is for good women to do something.