As a Public Health Specialist, Dorcas Gwata’s work is wide-reaching. Recently awarded the Zimbabwe International Women Humanitarian Award, Dorcas is connected to a large range of mental health projects across the UK, Zimbabwe and Tanzania; she works to safeguard and raise awareness on issues like FGM, HIV and AIDS, as well as the health impacts of gang culture.
“I come from a family of grassroots civil-servants,” she says when I ask her about her early influences. “My mother had great compassion for helping vulnerable groups – particularly women and children. These humanist seeds were planted in me long ago.” From her studies at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to working as a cleaner in an Edinburgh hospital – where she got first-hand experience of the issues faced by low-income groups – she is passionate about equality. “I advocate tirelessly for these groups because I understand the issues,” she says.
After her studies, Dorcas worked as a Mental Health Adviser for AFRUCA (Africans Unite Against Child Abuse), a charity which was formed as a response to the Victoria Climbié case in 2000. Victoria, an 8 year old Ivorian girl, who’d been suffering severe abuse without appropriate social-care intervention, was eventually murdered by her guardians in 2000. The case was widely reported by the media. Dorcas says it “struck a code”, resulting in much-needed change across care systems, and raising questions on the role that religion and culture plays in shaping cultural practises. At AFRUCA, Dorcas explored African cultural practises such as FGM, Human Trafficking, Witchcraft Branding and child chastisement. “Working here shaped my understanding of advocacy in terms of looking at what makes policies successful at grassroots levels.”
Despite the notable health improvements in the African population in the last decade, the continent still faces enormous healthcare challenges. “There is no health without mental health,” Dorcas explains. “Physical health is intrinsically tied to mental health and in low-income countries these challenges are compounded by poverty, poor access to healthcare, and poor healthcare systems. Mental health across the globe receives very little recognition and funding – and this is even more the case in low-income countries.”
But Dorcas says she is always moved by the resilience of people who are so disproportionately burdened with such challenges. “I think communities in high-income countries could learn so much from those who have so little – they’d do well to adopt their models of social and cultural cohesion.”
Dorcas was tasked with evaluating the African Ebola crisis of 2013-16; she describes it as one of the most striking epidemics of our time. “Viruses don’t respect borders,” she says, acknowledging the speed that the disease travelled across countries. “I learned – more than ever – that the best of our scientific knowledge is not complete without a robust understanding of local cultural practices. I also learned that communities have capacity to mobilise themselves, even when governments fail to do so. And it’s important that Africans take ownership of our own challenges, and provide better healthcare for the African population. Equally, we need to credit the African response to the Ebola crisis – Nigeria was Ebola-free before the U.S.A. was.”
Dorcas is currently working on mental health interventions in London for young people and families involved in gangs, and also young girls affected by sexual exploitation through gang culture. Her current research supports adolescents who often have high exposure to trauma, and are often stigmatised and/or isolated from their wider society. “My work takes a broader approach to understanding the push-and-pull factors that drive young people in and out of gangs,” she says and notes that a significant proportion of young people involved in gangs come from minority backgrounds and suffer high levels of poverty. “My role challenges the notion of ‘Hard to Reach’ groups. It adapts culturally-adjusted methods of outreach engagement – we’ve taken the clinic to the streets, for example. It’s our priority to keep young people safe from knife-crime and to keep young girls safe from sexual exploitation.”
I wish my mother were alive to see the seeds she planted. I miss her dearly. I blame her entirely for my restlessness in seeking a better tomorrow.
Winning the Zimbabwean International Women Humanitarian Award in 2016 was one of Dorcas’ career highlights, and she notes the responsibility that comes with it to mentor others. She was also named Nursing Standard Nurse of the Year 2015 for her work with young people involved in gangs. “The real heroes of that award are the young vulnerable people I look after – people who are striving for a better and safer life, often with little acknowledgement,” she says.
But it isn’t just the awards that inspire her; she loves the arts. “I believe the arts have an important place in people’s recovery and well being,” she says. “What would it mean for patients in a mental health hospital to hear a few lines of poetry or the thump piano?” She feels the arts ground her, and often looks to women in this field for inspiration. “I love Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie’s writing,” she says. “I remember meeting her briefly once, and she said to me: ‘We need to hear about Zimbabwe. Keep writing about Zimbabwe’. And Arundhati Roy – her pen knows no boundaries. She’s unapologetic about advocating for the voiceless, for the forgotten groups in her society. I take a leaf out of her book.”