Youth Month 2023: Dr Shakira Choonara

Youth Month 2023: Dr Shakira Choonara

June is Youth Month, and this year the NRF is celebrating the Youth of the NRF who are advancing knowledge, transforming lives, and inspiring a nation. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Shakira Choonara is a multi-award-winning Public Health Practitioner. She is currently a Technical Specialist at the World Health Organization (WHO) HQ; Thematic Lead on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) at the United Nations Women HQ, and Lancet Commissioner on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing. Dr Choonara received funding from the NRF for her postgraduate studies from Honours through to PhD; a DSI-NRF internship in 2012/2013, and an NRF Research Excellence: Next Generation Researcher Award in 2017.

Notably, Dr Choonara was named one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in South Africa: Mail and Guardian 2020 and an Obama Foundation Africa Leader in 2018. She has also served as a director on the International Board of AMREF Health Africa as well as a non-executive director of Youth Health Africa since 2020.

How did your journey start?

I grew up in the Roodepoort CBD in Gauteng, South Africa. I had a humble upbringing – my father was differently-abled and my mother never had education or employment opportunities under the apartheid state. Tough economic circumstances as well as witnessing stigma, discrimination and various racial issues shaped my interest in human rights and the will to change the world.

Growing up, I had the aspiration to be the Minister of Health in South Africa and even the President of the country. At an early age, I began accompanying my father to public health facilities for his chronic conditions and I knew then that I wanted to change the patient experience.

I hold an undergraduate degree in Health Sciences, shifted to an Honours and Master’s in Demography and found myself back in the field of Public Health during my Doctoral studies. My studies were all completed at Wits University (2010 to 2017).

Having spent a long time in academia, I utilised these skills in the advocacy arena to lead youth and gender programming across Africa, working with patients who survived gender-based violence and child marriages, as well as youth living with HIV. Continued work at the ground level, the experiences women and girls face, and poor public health systems shaped my continued commitment to the field. It is a privilege to be able to shape global policies and programming in my current roles at WHO and UN Women. I no longer aspire for a political position, but rather how can I shape society and change the world, this is what centres my work, passion and future goals.

How has your affiliation with the NRF impacted your studies/career?

Indeed, the NRF invested heavily in my postgraduate training – pursuing these studies would have been out of reach for me. I believe that all of my current successes are due to this investment. In 2012/13, I landed my first professional role at the Centre for Health Policy, which was funded by the NRF. During this time, I received excellent training such as public speaking courses, excel courses, the professionalisation of youth work and work experience. This leaves an invaluable mark on one’s career progression.

Did you have to overcome any obstacles to be where you are today, and what did you learn from it?

Indeed. As mentioned, being from a disadvantaged background and progressing all the way to doctoral studies (and completing it) was no easy feat. Over the past few years, I have faced ageism and gender discrimination (earlier about when I would commence child-bearing and now not having children) and even being a person of colour – it’s not easy navigating our social and work spaces, both in South Africa and globally as a young professional.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

I now have a wide and exciting portfolio that I manage. At the World Health Organization, I support efforts at global, regional and country levels to strengthen the health and care workforce through an ILO-OECD-WHO Program (Working for Health). I also support a WHO & UNFPA project on the integration of sexual and reproductive health and rights, especially the rights of marginalised and vulnerable populations within health systems.

At UN Women, I currently lead the Action Coalition on Bodily Autonomy and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, working closely with 400 partners all across the world to advance gender equality.

I do wear several other hats, such as serving as the Lancet Commissioner on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing. Work for the Commission is underway and we will be releasing our findings in the course of next year. The Commission is an important body within global health which provides a framing of both challenges and solutions to strengthen adolescent health globally.

How can your work/studies advance knowledge, transform lives, and inspire a nation?

Given the diversity of projects, there are a couple of impacts: stronger policies and programmes on the health workforce, gender equality and health systems. Given the global scale of these projects within the multi-lateral arena, these projects shape government action, advocacy campaigns and even support the building of networks and coalitions. Ultimately, it boils down to patient care and fighting the injustices against women and girls.

What are some of your proudest achievements?

The one that stands out, is supporting the Working for Health team at WHO in 2022 to develop the Working for Health 2022 – 2030 Action Plan for a stronger health and care workforce. The Action Plan was adopted at the World Health Assembly (2022). I have designed and executed several youth leadership and mentorship programmes, and seeing these youth leaders thrive in their various roles does indeed make me proud.

Last year (2022), I piloted the Shakira Choonara Young African Scholarship Award supporting a young woman in Botswana to complete her studies. The scholarship will be launched officially on 16 June 2023 and it is an annual initiative whereby I hope to support one deserving young African to attain their dreams. It is so important to me – I know the value of education and I want to give back.

Some of my projects can be found here:


  • Working for Health:

UN Women

  • UN Women Generation Equality Action Coalition:
  • Lancet Commission on Adolescent Health and Wellbeing:

What are your career aspirations for the future?

I do enjoy merging research, advocacy and policy work – this is what I hope to continue to do. In whatever role I serve, giving back and making an impact is important. My passion points are youth, gender and health. I do see myself playing a larger role at a community level – rebuilding and reviving South Africa is an emerging passion project as I plan to partner and invest in uplifting communities through social entrepreneurship models. Although, Africa runs through my veins and building my continent is equally important. In summary, I am not aspiring for any role/tile/position, rather, it has become about “what can I do, how can I serve, and how can I build?”

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