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Women a force for change

Aug 01 2012 07:40 *Amelia Jones

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IF THERE's one sector where there is an abundance of women in leadership positions, it's community-based organisations.

I don’t have any research to back this other than 44 years of experience, 25 of those as a social worker and 19 with the Community Chest, the last 16 of as chief executive.

In that time I've met some inspirational women doing tremendous work, often under extremely trying circumstances. Few of them ever received any recognition or acknowledgement – not that they sought it.

In national women's month we'll be bombarded by messages hailing the contributions to South Africa by its women with emotive, exquisitely wrought advertising campaigns.

There's nothing wrong with this.

If it gives people, pause to think for a moment of the importance of women in society and particularly how this can be nurtured and encouraged, then that's a good thing – right?

Of course it is. The problem is that by mid-September we'll have ticked the block and moved on.

While politicians will make all the right noises, the plight of women won't materially change.

Even as I write this Rape Crisis, one of the Community Chest's longstanding beneficiaries, is retrenching staff. In a country with a horrific incidence of rape, a lack of funds is forcing the organisation to rely on volunteers rather than professional counsellors and social workers.

This comes soon after the SaartjieBaartman Centre for Women and Children faced closure, only to be saved by two sisters whose inspired fundraising campaign caught the media's attention.

At the risk of generalising, why is it that so often women step up when nobody else seems to care?

It seems extraordinary when you consider that in South Africa women are most likely to be poor, least likely to have an education and least likely to find employment.

They are most likely to suffer at the hands of an abuser.

This is despite a much-lauded constitution which enshrines women's rights.

Perhaps it's because they are most often responsible for child care, accessing resources, preparing food and caring for the sick and elderly.

Research shows that women are more likely to start a business because they cannot find other employment. They are more diligent because the responsibility to be a homemaker and see to the family's well-being falls to them. They are also more likely to repay debt.

Surely then we should be capitalising on these virtues forged by adversity?

Rather than bombarding me with offers to up my overdraft, I'd like my bank to be helping women start small businesses.

This needn't involve handing over loads of unsecured cash – although Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank in Bangladesh famously challenged the assumption that the so-called lower end of the market is more likely to default on loans.

And don’t get me wrong. I'm not particularly picking on banks. There are many other well-meaning businesses who mobilise their staff for 67 minutes on Mandela Day and which will make similar gestures during Women's Month.

But what if they were to employ their skills, knowledge and resources to make a lasting impact? Teach angling rather than hand out fishes, to torture the cliché.

Our experience at the Community Chest is that sharing a little know-how can go a long way.

In 1994 we realised that one of the reasons so many community-based organisations failed is that they just didn't have the skills to run an organisation.

Often these included financial skills. The fact is that if you can't show a set of books and account for how money is spent, it's unlikely that you'll be able to attract donors.

Our training started informally in a garage in Gugulethu and has since evolved into formal courses. Over 4 500 people from over 800 organisations have graduated. Community-based organisations often refer to our training department as the university of the social welfare sector.

It's just one example, but something similar to capitalise on the characteristics women have evolved to deal with adversity would go a long way towards realising some of the objectives of Women's Month.

Of course, the ultimate goal must be to eventually negate the need for Women's Month altogether.

 - Fin24 

* Amelia Jones is CEO of Community Chest. Write a column on women in business and become a guest columnist on Fin24 - send your contribution to editor@fin24.com.

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