An outspoken African feminist, Sharon Ekambaram’s activist track record spans a lifetime. One of her first posts was as a temporary teacher for children with learning difficulties, to plug gaps left by the National Party policy that excluded black students from university education.
She helped to found the Treatment Action Campaign in 1999, and became the provincial coordinator for Gauteng, joining activists who eventually forced the government to make antiretroviral treatment available to the public, despite the ANC’s and Thabo Mbeki’s Aids denialism. This greatly reduced the risk of transmission of HIV from mothers to their unborn babies, and she counts this as her most significant victory.
Sharon then became the founding director of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) office in South Africa. After four years she stepped down and established the Dr Neil Aggett Unit to head up the advocacy work of MSF in South Africa.
In 2016, she joined Lawyers for Human Rights as the refugee and migrant rights programme manager. In her work Sharon, 60, constantly teases out the intersecting issues of feminism, the working class, HIV/health, racism and xenophobia. She has led and provided strategic input to many cross-purpose movements that address human rights violations, and she sits on a number of task teams and working groups, including international NGOs and government departments.
She says her greatest lesson was to learn the ability to listen and to take a breath and reflect, instead of taking on any issue out of anger.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
That a man’s erection is his problem
Our theme this year is Accelerating Equality & Empowerment in Women. How do you empower yourself and women around you?
Mentoring is a powerful tool. There is a need for the youth to take on the role of mentoring older generations and vice versa. Empowerment is rooted in class, race and gender consciousness — being open to gaining new knowledge and being open to learning.
If you could change or achieve one thing for South Africa today, what would it be?
Free quality education for all, including tertiary education.