In South Africa, Womxn’s Month is a historic tribute to the thousands of womxn, from across the country, who marched to the Union Buildings, on 9 August 1956, to protest the extension of Apartheid Pass Laws to womxn. We celebrate Womxn’s Month as a commemoration of the resilient, remarkable, passionate, multi-faceted, inspirational womxn, that form the past, present, and future of our country.
This Womxn’s Month, in honour and celebration of South African womxn, we want to share with you a short series of conversations with a few inspirational, trailblazing South African womxn. We hope their stories and their words remind you of your own potential, as we continue to shape the future we hope for.
Today’s ‘Trailblazing Womxn’ is Melene Rossouw. Melene Rossouw is an internationally recognised gender and human rights activist and change-maker of note. She is an attorney by profession with 13 years of working experience in the legal, governmental, and non-governmental spheres. Melene graduated from the University of the Western Cape with a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) and Master of Laws (LL.M) specilialsing in the area of Public and Constitutional Law. She is also the Founder of Women Lead Movement, an organization that aims to educate, empower, and inspire womxn to lead social change in their communities through Human Rights and Leadership training curricula. I spoke to Melene about her journey as an activist, what inspires her, and her work with the Women Lead Movement.
In the ‘1001 South African Stories’ event that I first heard you talk at, you spoke about growing up in a single-parent household and how your mom was always involved in outreach programmes in your community that helped abused women and children. What is an important lesson that you learnt from your mom, which you will cherish always?
Melene: I have learned many life lessons from my mother through her work as a teacher and community worker. I grew up in a single-parent household and saw my mother wear many hats: she was an educator, a part-time student at the University, a supportive parent, a friend, a political activist, an active member in her church, and a community worker assisting abused women and children.
My mother is an incredible human being. She not only taught me about hard work and commitment, but through her consistent actions showed me what that looked like. My mother, through all her endeavours, always exuded courage, selflessness, humility, and perseverance. She is a principled woman and since my childhood, I have always strived to be the same. Irrespective of the mountain of challenges she faced in her own life, she always had her door open for others and extended her help and care to those who needed it most. My mother believed in sharing what she had, with whoever needed, even if we did not have very much. There were many times where I did not know how we would get through the month, but we always did!
How does your heritage and story influence your activism?
Melene: I always say that I was born with three strikes against my name: I was born coloured, I was born a female, and I was born poor. But, instead of allowing the world to define me by those three things, I set out to define for myself who and what I am and what I want to be. The circumstances I was born into were not going to become a stumbling block. Instead, I saw it as a catalyst to achieve great things.
Growing up, I saw many people in my community unemployed, uneducated, addicted to substances, and living in abject poverty. I could never understand why Coloured and Black people had to live in the environments which we did and it was only later that I learned about Apartheid and how all the suffering I had endured, and many others, were manmade by a government that was determined to ensure that Black and Coloured people remain second-class citizens.
Living in this vicious, violent cycle made me more determined to break it, because the consequences were severe. I believed that our people had to be treated with equal dignity and respect and given equal opportunities. I never knew that I would become a lawyer or a human rights activist. All I knew, from a young age, was that I wanted to understand the basis for why this happened and ensure that it never happened again, irrespective of who sits at the helm.
In 2017, you co-founded the Women Lead Movement. The Women Lead Movement aims to promote a gender-equal society and an active and participatory citizenry, by equipping womxn and girls with the skills and knowledge to lead social change at a grassroots level. What is your ultimate vision for the women and girls in these communities?
Melene: WLM's focus is predominantly on the millions of ordinary womxn and girls at grassroots level that are often excluded from the gender equality conversation, yet they are the primary victims of gender discrimination. Our patriarchal societal norms foster and sustain this vicious cycle of abuse and, in the absence of political will, our laws have proven futile in the battle against gender stereotyping, and the oppression and suppression of womxn and girls.
WLM is therefore resolute in confronting and challenging any arbitrary laws, policy, social constructs, mindsets, and behaviours which threaten gender equality and stifle the realization of gender parity. To achieve these objectives, WLM educates, mobilises and equips womxn and girls, particularly, in our disadvantaged communities to take a stand, cement themselves as social change agents and, in a constructive manner, support one another and collectively advocate for gender equality and the end of Gender-Based Violence.
WLM believes that by empowering and educating women and girls to be social change agents in their communities and schools it will not only promote an active and participatory citizenry but will be the catalyst for more organised and impactful community action against human rights violations afflicted upon the marginalised, disempowered and vulnerable groups. Our intended outcomes are:
- Increased leadership, skilfulness, and self-confidence of womxn and girls;
- Increased knowledge and understanding of human rights, womxn's rights and the impact of gender discrimination to reduce human rights violations and abuse of womxn and girls;
- Increased participation and representation of womxn in local government, community-based organizations, existing community structures, and decision-making processes;
- Educated and empowered womxn and girls on the frontlines advocating and campaigning in schools and the community for womxn's rights, gender equality and the elimination of GBV;
- Equipping womxn and girls to become agents of change in their communities and schools;
- Organized community activities through established Women Community Forums which is a WLM Flagship initiative;
- Increased knowledge and understanding of Democracy and the Constitution to combat low levels of public participation in processes such as voting and other forms of public life; and
- Cultivating an engaged and responsible citizenry to hold each other and their elective officials accountable
In an interview with ONE campaign, you posed the question, “How do we start empowering women to become change agents in their community if they don’t even understand that they have rights and can enforce these rights?” Especially in South Africa, where it often feels like there is a war against women, why is it so important to you to educate women on their constitutional rights, how to campaign, and how to hold governments accountable?
Melene: Womxn and girls have, for eons, been oppressed through the patriarchal system embedded within our society and institutions. Because of patriarchy it automatically placed women at the bottom, but it didn’t end there. It ascribed certain roles to males and females and these roles were the basis on which rules, laws, resources, responsibilities, power, and rights were distributed or allocated between womxn and men in society resulting in perpetual discrimination and injustice against womxn and girls.
But, women all over the world are beginning to rise up! What many people don’t understand, and Kofi Annan so clearly explained, is that “gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance.” If womxn are not empowered and educated, the progress of the world stagnates. So, promoting gender equality is not only the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. Everyone wins.
But, the problem is that there are many men still at the helm of the economy and politics and they simply refuse to open up spaces for womxn. Now, what they clearly don’t understand is that womxn consist of half of the world’s population and if we can foster unity and collaboration amongst womxn, it is just a matter of time before womxn will find themselves in those positions. Womxn need to understand what their rights are and how to enforce those rights, as a collective. If womxn understand the system of politics, and they are educated in how they can get involved, they will take up the challenge and move into those spaces and do great work that would not only be beneficial for women and girls but society in general.
I always said that if men refuse to give us a seat at the table, we will bring our own table. But, we cannot continue to pretend that womxn are not adversely affected by the decisions men make on their behalf. Womxn are the bedrock of society. They are hard-working, influential, intelligent, and compassionate. Although they are never given the recognition they deserve, they have the power to change the status quo if only they are given the guidance, advice, support, and education needed. That is why we do what we do.
You hold a Master of Laws (LL.M) degree from the University of the Western Cape, with a specialization in Public and Constitutional Law, and you worked in government for many years before founding the Women Lead Movement. What made you make that transition from a governmental policy level, to an NGO level? In terms of empowering women and promoting gender equity, what role do you think the government has to play, and what role do you think NGOs fulfil?
Melene: Since I can remember I have always had a passion for law and politics. Never did the thought of starting my own NGO go through my mind, but little did I know that working in the legal and governmental spaces was going to be the soil that would birth me. It would become, yet again, the catalyst for what I believe I am destined to do and be.
When I wrote my thesis, my focus was on the aspect of public participation to realise socio-economic rights, because I found that government in developing these policies, legislation, and plans did not adequately engage the citizens on these policies. I could not understand why it was so. Our Constitution, through the rights of equality, freedom, and human dignity and within the context of our democracy requires that the people of the country must be involved in those decisions and they were not. If the government did consult, it was merely procedural and not meaningful. I knew that it was going to be much more difficult for me to rectify this issue within government, but I also realised that the real power did not sit in the high echelons of government but with the ordinary people in South Africa. I knew that I needed to get into the communities to start educating, empowering, and raising awareness, but also inspire them to move from apathy to action. The NGO space was the only space I knew was going to give me the freedom to do just that.
When it comes to empowering womxn and promoting gender equality, all sectors of society must play a part in this. Government is a critical role player as they develop, review, and amend laws and invest the financial resources to create a progressive policy framework for women to be able to excel. However, we are not seeing this at the scale that we are required to. According to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2020, it will take the world on average 100 years to achieve gender parity in health, politics, education, and in the economy. Of course, next year this could be 150 years depending on the progress of individual countries and what we have been seeing is much regress especially where men are still at the helm. We need political will to ensure that the laws are implemented, and its effectiveness evaluated.
NGO’s play a critical role too. The vast power and influence of NGOs should never be underestimated. However, sometimes they underestimate themselves. I believe that with a strong and clear vision, strategy, and plan NGOs can be really influential both in the communities and in government. Organisations, like mine, do a range of activities from educating, empowering, advocating and campaigning for change.
In a video for the ONE campaign film series, you said something very important – “None of us are equal until all of us are equal.” Promoting active and participatory citizenry, in the pursuit of achieving gender equity is a huge part of your work. I think it is often easy to feel like the world’s problems are too big for us to take on. In your opinion, what steps can each one of us take to become a more active and participatory citizen, within our own communities, to be a part of the change?
Melene: My advice is simple, based on my experience – ensure that you are knowledgeable about the challenges that are faced in your community and the country as a whole. Do not become economical with the truth. Speak the truth and stand up for injustices, even if it doesn’t favour you or the people you represent. It can only be in truth that we can begin working through challenges and finding solutions that are suitable, equitable, and just for as many people in our country as possible.
Be willing to work with different people from different walks of life. They will contribute to shaping your world view and it will also help you to understand issues better. Be clear in terms of what you want to change in your community or society at large. Find the right people with the right skills set to help you execute your vision. President Obama said that no big thing has ever been achieved on your own. You have a choice to start your own organisation or join an existing organisation that is already doing work in the community.
Ensure that your solutions are people-centred and never disrespect or underestimate the people you work within the community. Solutions can be as practical as starting small businesses, a community vegetable garden, an environmental clean-up campaign, an afterschool programme, education on the effects of substance abuse, starting a feeding scheme, educating people about the importance of voting, and the list continues. All these things, and much more, make up the fabric of our society. We ultimately want to empower and educate the people to become self-reliant, responsible, informed, and confident and I can guarantee you, once people see that they can effect change on a micro-level they will be enticed to start effecting change on a macro -level.
As a change-maker and a womxn who is so dedicated to your career, in that regard, do you ever feel societal pressures to conform to certain gendered expectations in your career and your life? How do you deal with these pressures?
Melene: I have honestly never conformed or felt the pressure to conform, even amid such pressure. A lesson I have learned very early on in my life is that my destiny does not sit in the hands of another person. We tend to compromise on who we are and what we are called to do in our life, because we believe that someone else has the power and influence to determine our destiny. No one has that power. For me, it is about expressing myself in the most authentic way, harnessing my power, mastering self-reflection, and being honest with myself.
Once you find your truth there is nothing that can stop you from fulfilling the calling on your life - not even silly pressures to conform. We are born to stand out, not fit in. People’s opinions are a dime a dozen if they have nothing constructive to say. You are under no obligation to take what they say to heart.
What makes you proud to be a South African womxn?
Melene: South African womxn are some of the strongest womxn you will ever get to meet. We have endured more pain, suffering, oppression, and ridicule than many other womxn across the world. But, through it all, we have remained resilient and resolute. We just do not give up irrespective of life’s unending challenges. Our womxn smile through their tears and are courageous even amidst fear and tyranny. We have sowed our hearts into a country that refuses to acknowledge us, but we continue to sow, nevertheless. That is a South African womxn.