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Women in Surgery: Dr. Kondjela Hamunyela

To celebrate International Women's Day 2023, we're featuring some of the amazing women we work alongside in the fight to increase global surgical capacity.

Was there a time in your career where you felt you weren’t being given the support or resources you were looking?

No, I have never felt under supported because of my gender. I was privileged enough to have had senior general surgeons mentoring me in Namibia from my internship years. For this I am truly grateful.

With women typically underrepresented in surgical departments, or leadership positions what inspired you to follow your path?

I fell in love with surgery during my third year of undergraduate training. I remember entering a surgical theatre for the first time and being amazed at the process involved in operating a patient. I remember distinctly observing the ecosystem of different roles in an operating theatre ranging from the nurses, anesthetist, and surgeon. I was so intrigued by the whole experience, I continued to follow up with the patient who was completely oblivious of the whole process in the OR while they were under anesthesia, and eventually witnessing them being discharged home. I knew during that encounter that I wanted to be a part of that ecosystem in theatre.

How many women are in your team currently? Do you feel there is enough, and that they are given the same opportunities to succeed as male counterparts? 

The face of medicine is changing I believe, more women are now entering the surgical disciplines. We are currently two female Paediatric Surgical Consultants, and we have three female medical officers who are under our training with a keen interest in paediatric surgery. I do believe that today, compared to the past females are being given the same opportunities as our male counterparts, especially with the scholarships being made available for female candidates requiring financial support to pursue their dreams.

What motivates you to keep working in the field? 

For me surgery isn’t just a job. It’s about making a difference to children and family’s lives’ by offering a service which gives them a bit of hope in the health services of a resource limited country. My biggest reward is seeing a mothers’ smile as they are discharged home with their child after lengthy surgeries and days spent stressing in the hospital. Their smile gives me the strength to continue offering that service to the next patient with as much if not more dedication.

Prior to me wring my first FC Pediatric surgery examination in Cape town south, there was no pediatric surgery department in the state sector in Namibia. There was definitely a need to have a pediatric surgeon in the state. All pediatric surgical cases where operate by the general surgeons, they were referred to the private sector or sent to South Africa for surgical management. I am honored to be a pioneer in helping to start the department and watching it grow as more consultants and medical officers join the department.

Has there been a female role model who has had an impact on your career? 

My mother is my role model. My mother never had the privilege of finishing school. Despite not being able to speak English at that time, she continued to always motivate her children to do well in school. She kept reminding us that we were growing up in a different time in Namibia, where children with similar backgrounds like her could now go to school and pursue a tertiary education. She continued to encourage us to strive for what wasn’t possible for her in the past. 

What advice would you give to a young woman or girl who is looking to enter the medical industry/ leadership position? What do you wish you had known from a younger age? 

There will be challenges encountered as with any career. Progressing up the career path, every female understands the additional pressures of life and the greater spectrum of responsibilities such as maternity leave, family and children. There is a glass ceiling for women in surgery which seems to be a challenge. 

We need to embrace this perceived ceiling as normal stages of our growth as a woman. With us networking, sharing our experiences with each other and through mentoring, this perceived glass ceiling can be shattered for future female surgeons.

What changes need to be made for more women to pursue a career in surgery/leadership? 

I do believe progress has been made on gender diversity in surgery. Of the issues we know perhaps to mention a few which we could still improve on would be : more support for fellow females in the surgical fraternity, more support for woman who on maternity leave, encourage gender neutrality when choosing candidates and discourage shameless sexual allusive comments in the hospital setting. One issue which impede woman becoming surgeons is because of the lack of confidence of the hired personal caring for their children in their absence. Perhaps institutions could consider having crèche’s and Day care centers at the hospital premises where staff can leave their children while at work.

How has your work affected your relationship with family and friends?  

Being a surgeon, most of my time is devoted to the hospital and theatre. I am still learning to keep a balance between my personal life and the demands of my career choice. I have a great support system at home who understand these demands , my family and friends also continue to encourage me because they realized I have a true my passion for my field.

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