PUBLISHED:May 07, 2009

A passion for HIV/AIDS legal issues leads a student to South Africa

Dineo Mpela-Thompson’s journey to South Africa began in the fall semester of her 2L year when Fatima Hassan LLM ’02 came to speak to her AIDS and the Law class. Hassan, one of South Africa’s leading practitioners of AIDS law, worked with the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg until December 2008 and is a member of Cape Town’s Treatment Action Campaign.

“Fatima did a lot of litigation with pharmaceutical companies to reduce drug prices for ARVs,” Mpela-Thompson says, referring to the antiretroviral (ARV) drugs used to suppress the HIV virus and stop its progression. “She gave us an overview of the type of work that she does — South Africa being an area of the world where the HIV epidemic is pretty high — and that got me interested.”

Following Hassan’s visit, Mpela-Thompson enrolled in the AIDS Legal Project at Duke Law and began working with Clinical Professor Carolyn McAllaster to craft an international externship experience. “I learn best by practice and I wanted the practical awareness and practical challenge that I thought would come with an international placement like this,” she says.

The months of planning paid off and Mpela-Thompson spent the fall 2008 semester working with the AIDS Law Project and Treatment Action Campaign surveying individuals, conducting case studies, and researching policies that, if implemented, could facilitate access to ARV medication and HIV-AIDS prevention.

Even after extensive negotiations and litigation that made ARVs more affordable, only 19 percent of people who needed the medicine were receiving it, Mpela-Thompson says. The stigma of being HIV positive often hinders progress, she adds, especially in South Africa, where the former president and minister of health denied the AIDS epidemic during their tenures in office.

Mpela-Thompson says her experience abroad was everything she had hoped it would be and more.

“I think the biggest skill I gained from both the AIDS clinic and the externship was learning how to communicate to lay people,” she says. “We were lay people before we started law school, but we then enter into this system and are taught how to talk like lawyers and learn legalese, we forget how to talk like non-lawyers.

“If we can’t translate all of the complex legal principles we learn in the classroom into plain language for the people we are trying to help, it’s hard to have any relationship with them and that, in large part, is what the practice of law is about.”

Mpela-Thompson also enjoyed the cultural experience of living in South Africa for a semester. She took numerous trips to the Western Cape and visited members of her mother’s family who live in Lesotho. “South Africa is a lot bigger than I thought,” she says. “I was always on the road, but I wanted that. I wanted to be able to take it all in.”

She developed deep friendships with her colleagues at the AIDS Law Project and Treatment Action Campaign, too, and through those friendships gained insight into the issue of stigma, causing her to reflect on the role it plays in the United States' HIV-AIDS battle.

“One of the things that I found — especially within the Treatment Action Campaign where it has been able to mobilize a people and thereby get rid of the stigma — is that either by its leaders being public about their HIV-positive status, or by its members wearing the organization’s signature ‘HIV Positive’ T-shirt, they’ve accepted that they have this epidemic. And, because they have accepted it, they are able to do what they need to in order to get rid of it,” she says. “I think that here it would really behoove us to think about ways to get rid of the stigma surrounding HIV-AIDS, so that it wouldn’t be both easy and desirable to distance oneself from the realities of the epidemic here at home. One of the ways we do that is by putting a face, or many faces, to the disease.”

Above all, Mpela-Thompson says the international externship affirmed her career goals on a number of levels. “My vision, which was reinforced by my time abroad, is to practice law that has an international landscape,” she says. “My South African experience has honed that and given me a niche, so to speak. I now know that I want to do something in the field of public health, specifically HIV-AIDS related.

“I have always thought that the law would be the gateway that I would use to work towards social justice,” she says. “This is why I came to law school, and wanted to be a lawyer. But once laws are passed or advocated for and enforced, it is paramount that they actually impact the people they were made to benefit. This was largely what the policy work I did at TAC entailed, and what I ultimately want to be a part of.”