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Jakes Gerwel Award 2017

Jakes Gerwel Award 2017: Public Health, Higher Education and Making A Difference

The annual Jakes Gerwel Award, which has been awarded since 2013, honours graduates of UWC’s School of Public Health whose leadership in research or practice has led to significant improvements in public health. The worthy recipients for 2016 and 2017, respectively, are Anne Mutunda and Dr Rolene Wagner, who have truly made a difference.

“The 2016 and 2017 awardee showcase the amazing talent we have on this continent,” noted Prof Pamela Dube, UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support. “Each of them has showed great leadership in their areas. We hope that their experiences at UWC enabled them to grow in their skills and abilities, professionally and personally. Their work stands as a showcase of the type of graduate we want at UWC.”

The Award, made possible through a grant by the Mauerberger Foundation Fund (MFF), is named for the late Professor Jakes Gerwel, former Vice-Chancellor of UWC, a visionary leader who clearly saw the need for UWC to focus on public health practice and policy.

“We regard UWC as a pioneer in growing future leaders devoted to advancing human rights, ethics, good governance and social justice, all of which align with our core mission,” said Dianna Yach, Director and Chairperson of the MFF.  “We want this award to be a long-term investment in future leaders, and we look forward to many years of working with you as special partners - and friends.”

Mutunda, an environmental health practitioner by training and a water & sanitation health (WASH) surveillance officer with Akros in Zambia, received the 2016 Award for bringing attention to public health issues which have not generally been considered by authorities and policy makers. Her Masters of Public Health (MPH) research study explored the factors influencing the understanding, experiences and practices of menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls in Mongu District, Western Province of Zambia.

“Little did I know that the recommendations of my research proposal would make such an impact in the lives of many young girls,” Mutunda said during her speech.

Her study found that inadequacy of information and lack of knowledge and awareness about the coming of age was influenced by cultural beliefs and taboos associated with menstruation. Due to the lack of education, young girls miss out on up to five school days every month due to no sanitary care when experiencing their menstrual cycle, which has a detrimental effect on their school work and results.

“It’s really difficult to assist girls and young women due to a culture of silence about menstrual health care in Zambia,” she added. “It’s a very sensitive subject, and yet this culture of silence is infringing on many rights of these young women.” 

The 2017 Award was presented to Dr Rolene Wagner, CEO of Frere Hospital in East London, where her team's clear focus on delivering an efficient, cost-effective and patient-centred healthcare service has transformed Frere from the hospital known as ‘a place where babies go to die’, into one now nationally recognised for its achievements.

“It is an honour to be a recipient of this Award for three reasons,” she said.

“Firstly, the Award is named after Professor Jakes Gerwel – and he was the epitome of integrity and courage. I think many of us in Public Health inspire to achieve even a fraction of the contribution that he has made to our country and to Public Health.”

“It’s also an honour because it’s associated with the Mauerberger Foundation, and they have a powerful legacy of contributing to empowering communities and women,” Wagner continued.

“Lastly, it’s an honour because Prof Sanders and the UWC SOPH ignited my passion for public health and challenged me to be a critical thinker. I am eternally grateful to them - and I believe that what I learned here has made a difference in my life, and in the lives of others.”

Both Mutunda and Wagner said that this Award has motivated them to do even greater good – in honour of the late Professor Jake Gerwel's legacy.

“This award has come at the right time,” said Mutunda, who is setting up a research proposal on menstruation as a reproductive right. “The funds will help - I am dedicating the award to the rural school-going girls in the districts where AKROS is promoting Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM).”

Heinrich Gerwel, son of the late Prof Gerwel (and an alumnus of UWC), performed the award handover on behalf of the Gerwel family

Public Health & Higher Education: An Open Discussion

The Award is also a chance for critical engagement on issues of higher education and public health - and this year, the Award ceremony was preceded by a seminar held on Public Health Perspectives on the Crisis in Higher Education.

SOPH students and staff discussed such matters as: the conditions under which students study (public health aspects); content of curricula (and how do we think about a ‘decolonised’ public health curriculum); approaches to teaching (challenges and opportunities).

As a respected development scholar, Heinrich Gerwel spoke about the current challenges faced by the higher education sector, juxtaposing those with the tumultuous 1980s and ‘90s.

“Access to quality affordable higher education under trying socioeconomic circumstances is, for me, the most pressing concern being faced currently, that resonates with the struggles faced by universities during the late 80s and early 90s,” Gerwel said.

Students expressed concerns over the consequences of delayed NSFAS funding, difficulties with accommodation on and off campus, language challenges, limited computer access, safety and food security, and the multiple layers of responsibility and difficulty students have communicating with their families about their struggles (not wanting to burden them further). Mutanda also explored the particular challenges faced by those who undergo distance learning.

“The question I pose to us all here today,” Gerwel concluded, “is this: How do we turn all this around, and what is the task of academics and university-based intellectuals in fostering a better, more inclusive socioeconomic context for our young people?”

Want to know more about the Jakes Gerwel awardees’ contributions to public health? Download the full Jakes Gerwel Award 2016/2017 citation below. And why not view more pictures from the seminar and award ceremony?