Paramedics protest "condom" memo

SOUTH AFRICA: Paramedics protest "condom" memo

JOHANNESBURG, 27 Feb 2004 (PLUSNEWS) - Paramedics in South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province voiced their outrage this week after receiving an internal memorandum urging female staff members on night duty to wear condoms.

The memorandum, issued by the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health, followed a spate of ambulance hijackings in the area, during one of which a female paramedic was raped last week.

A provincial newspaper, The Mercury, said police had confirmed that four accused between the ages of 21 and 23 had been remanded in custody in connection with the crime.

According to the memorandum, any crew needing an escort should phone the emergency police service number, put cellular phones on silent mode and keep them where they would not be visible, and paramedics - especially women on the night shift - should wear condoms, which would be issued to them.

Provincial and private emergency medical rescue services staff protested on Monday in the capital of the province, Pietermaritzburg. The march culminated with the arrival of the wreck of the ambulance, which had been gutted and burnt after being stolen by the hijackers. Messages on placards read "community come to our rescue", "bring back the death penalty", "castrate rapists", "stop the hijackings and abuse", and "people's lives depend on us".

The Mercury reported that both men and women staff were furious. "Management is violating people's rights by asking them to carry condoms. Instead of fixing things, they are causing more harm," a staff member reportedly said.

Thora Mansfield, founder and director of the Open Door Crisis Centre, a local shelter for abused women and children, said: "The thought that wearing a condom is going to stop the problem is unfathomable, not to mention against basic human rights ... they are not addressing the issues of violence against women at all."

While women's rights groups and emergency medical rescue services staff expressed their outrage, the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health retracted the memorandum and issued a statement dissociating itself from the circular.

"We apologise to our staff and their families about this memo. It was both offensive and callous. It should not have been issued, and was issued without the sanction from the Department of Health," the statement read. The staff member who issued the memorandum had been placed on special leave, according to the department.

Lindiwe Khuzwayo, spokeswoman for the Department of Health, told PlusNews a decision was taken at a high-level meeting with police management that the police will be notified whenever an ambulance is dispatched.

"This is to ensure the safety of the ambulance, and so the police can respond quickly," said Khuzwayo.

The Coordinator for the Network on Violence Against Women in KwaZulu-Natal, Cookie Edwards, echoed Mansfield's sentiments. "We were disgusted and shocked at the memorandum. This is where violence against women and HIV/AIDS is directly, unmistakable linked. We have come so far in terms of women's rights, and for a government department to dictate that women wear condoms on duty is like returning to the days of women being in shackles.

"Calling the police for an escort is not an option, simply because they are grossly understaffed and under-resourced. This is an unacceptable solution," said Edwards.


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