Tlou: The continent's shining star


Professor Sheila Tlou has done it all. From being a professor at the University of Botswana (UB), being Minister of Health, to  Director of the UNAIDS Regional Support Team for Eastern and Southern Africa, Tlou has earned her place amongst the continent’s shining stars. 

A giant in health care and sexual reproductive health and  also an activist of note, Tlou has had quite a stellar career, spanning decades, but she isn’t done yet. Hers is an inspiring story to many, especially young aspiring women.

Tlou holds a PhD in Nursing Sciences and post-graduate Certificates in Women’s health and Gender Studies, from the University of Illinois in Chicago.  She also has a Master’s degree in Nursing Education and Instruction from Columbia University, a Master of Science in Nursing from the Catholic University of America, and a Bachelor of Nursing degree from Dillard University in New Orleans.

Tlou became involved in the AIDS response from the time the epidemic started in Botswana in 1985. By the time she became Minister of Health in 2004, she had already done enough in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Many observers have  credited her with the successful management of the virus in Botswana. She did a lot of work to increase community awareness of HIV and AIDS in the country, using youth groups, non-governmental organisations, and grassroots women’s bodies. 

In 2001, she addressed the United Nations on ‘Women, the Girl Child and HIV/AIDS’, and participated as a panellist in side events on Women and HIV/AIDS, organised by World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNAIDS at the UN Special General Assembly on AIDS (UNGAS).

She provided consultancy for the WHO, UNAIDS, the International Council of Nurses, and the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

She also served as HIV/ AIDS Coordinator at UB from 2002- 2004 and facilitated the formation of the Students Against AIDS Society. Although Tlou served just one term in Parliament as a specially elected Member of Parliament and Minister of Health from 2004 to 2008, she did quite a lot. With the virus spreading quickly, its effects were felt in devastating manner for the social and economic status of the country.

However, Tlou contributed to the improvement of global health care, especially for women and girls. She led a comprehensive HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, care and support programme in Botswana whose achievements include: a roll out of ARVs and PMTCT to near universal (90%) uptake, transmission of HIV from mother to child decreased from 30% in 2003 to eight percent in 2008, and maternal mortality due to AIDS decreased from 34% to nine percent.

At that time as health minister, Tlou also served as Chairperson of SADC and of the African Union Ministers of Health in 2005/6.

She provided leadership in the adoption of the SADC Malaria Eradication Programme, the SADC HIV/AIDS Plan of Action, the Africa Framework on Sexual and Reproductive Health, the Africa Health Strategy, and the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

Tlou also represented Eastern and Southern Africa in the Board of the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

She has also conducted research and taught courses to nursing, pre-medical and social science students on Gender issues relating to HIV/AIDS, Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, Ageing and Older Persons.  She is credited with playing a key role in the development of national nursing and medical education curricula, working to broaden the scope of Health Sciences education in her home country of Botswana.

Tlou has also been involved in activism work as well after founding the Botswana chapter of the Society of Women and AIDS in Africa (SWAA) in which volunteers are trained in home- based care and educate families on Human Rights and Gender Equality in the AIDS response.

In her past assignment as UNAIDS Regional Director, Tlou provided leadership and Political Advocacy for quality sustainable AIDS response in 21 African countries, from Eritrea to South Africa, including the Indian Ocean Islands of Madagascar, Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros.

She was instrumental in the formation of advocacy bodies such as The Pan-African Positive Women’s Coalition (PAPWC) and the High-Level Task Force on Women, Girls, Gender Equality and HIV in Africa; and she initiated and chaired a High-Level Task Force on Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Services for Young People in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Tlou is Co-Chair of the Nursing Now Global Campaign, which aims to raise the status and profile of nursing. Run in collaboration with the WHO and the International Council of Nurses, Nursing Now seeks to empower nurses to take their place at the heart of tackling 21st Century health challenges. The campaign runs until the end of 2020 and aims to improve perceptions of nurses, enhance their influence and maximise their contributions to ensuring that everyone everywhere has access to health and healthcare.

She is also Co-Chair of the Global HIV Prevention Coalition, initiated by UNAIDS and UNFPA, and borne out of the need to address the gap and rise in new infections despite success in treatment and care in all countries across the world. Countries have committed to reducing new HIV infections to fewer than 500, 000 annually by 2020 and ending AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

Tlou has a great appreciation for fine and performing arts and has been involved in amateur theatre since her primary education. She has portrayed Precious Ramotswe, the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies Detective Agency book series, in several amateur theatre productions in Botswana. She also starred in the Anthony Mingella BBC Movie: The Number One Ladies Detective Agency (2008). She has many publications on gender issues relating to HIV and AIDS, Older Persons, Menopause, and community- based approaches to HIV prevention.

Tlou’s work has not gone unnoticed as she has received many national and international awards. Amongst them are the Botswana Presidential Order of Honour, the Florence Nightingale Award from the International Red Cross Society, the Trailblazer Woman Leading Change Award from the World YWCA, the Leadership in Health award from the Global Business Council (Health), the President award from the US National Academy of Nursing, the President award from the US National League for Nursing, the Princess Srinagarindra award from Thailand, the Christianne Reimann award from the International Council of Nurses, and The Princess Muna Al Hussein award from the American Nurses Credentialing Centre.

She is also the United Nations Eminent Person for Women, Girls, and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa, and the International Council of Nurses Goodwill Ambassador for Girl Child Education.

Talking about honours, Tlou recently made Avance Media’s list of 100 Most Influential Women in Africa. She is the Co-Chair of the Global HIV Prevention Coalition and the Co-Chair of the Nursing Now Global Campaign.

Despite all this achievements and success, Professor Tlou does not harbour intentions of resting yet as she continues to trot the world serving in various portfolios.

However, she would also love to come back home one day and assume a significant role in the country’s top leadership hierarchy.

In an interview with Mmegi, Tlou talked about her work away from home, her ambitions of one day returning home, politics and how Botswana has done to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although she has spent much of her time outside the country since leaving politics, Tlou says she is not homesick as she is based in Johannesburg, an hour’s flight away from home.

“Homesickness isn’t an issue to me as I can just come here anytime I get a chance. It’s just a question of an hour flight although it would be nice to come back home and be close to family one day,” she said.

Tlou added she would like to come back home and assume a role in government even if it is just an advisory one. Without necessarily mentioning it, Tlou dreams to become the country’s Vice President (VP) one day, provided the system allowed it.

Tlou said she is not ready to return to politics “unless there is a change of the Constitution.”  Amongst the changes she wants in the Constitution is proportional representation as this would also increase women representation in Parliament. She wants the country to adopt a system whereby for one to be VP, she/he does not have to have a constituency as it is.

  Tlou commended Botswana’s effort in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the country is doing “okay” despite failure to raise awareness at community level.

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