Entrepreneurship: The opposite of abuse?

Businesswoman: Gender Links' approach to women's empowerment takes the economic aspect into account

Businesswoman: Gender Links' approach to women's empowerment takes the economic aspect into account

In 2013 Johannesburg-based Gender Links, a southern African women’s rights nongovernmental organisation, embarked on a pilot project to test the link between economic empowerment and ending gender violence.

The statistics were shocking. Preliminary baseline research revealed that 77% of women in Limpopo; 51% of women in Gauteng; 45% of women in the Western Cape and 36% of women in KwaZulu-Natal reported experiencing some form of violence (emotional, economic, physical or sexual) at least once in their lifetime, both within and outside their intimate relationships.

“For many years we had gathered “I” stories or first-hand accounts of survivors of gender-based violence,” says Gender Links founder and chief executive Colleen Lowe Morna. “Invariably women told us that they go back into abusive relationships because they have no choice. We asked ourselves what is the exact opposite of abuse, which destroys that essential sense of agency, of self-worth. And we decided on entrepreneurship, because it involves believing in yourself, taking risks, and of course being able to negotiate.”

Working with 100 councils in 10 Southern African countries that form part of the Centres of Excellence for Gender in Local Government, Gender Links devised a unique, year-long programme that includes gender training, life skills, business training, links to finance and opportunities, mentorship, networking and IT skills. Gender Link’s Gender Empowerment Index measures income, women’s experiences of violence, and attitudes and aptitudes at the start and finish of the programme.

To date 1 350 survivors of violence have undergone training and will receive follow-ups and mentorship support to enhance their personal agency and business growth. Additionally the Gender Links project prepares local governments to better understand how to reduce gender-based violence through entrepreneurship development, life skills training and follow-ups.

Concrete action was taken with the first 1 350 women: over 90% completed a business plan and 79% followed through on it. Importantly, the women felt empowered — opening bank accounts, thinking of new ways to increase their product range and on average, increasing their monthly income by R526. Most importantly, participants said they now experience less or far less gender-based violence. Overall, the relationship control index increased by four percentage points to 66%.

“When I met Gender Links I was already an entrepreneur under the cleaning project of the municipality and I am currently in my third year of working on the project,” says Schumi Blokland of Mossel Bay. “The training helped me because I have managed to put a savings plan in action, starting in November 2015, and the money will be used to grow my business. From this you will see that this programme indeed brought change to my life on every level, at home and community, as well as [in] my workplace.”

“I found the training very helpful and interesting,” says Ndobela Misolwa Vutisa from Phalaborwa. “The most useful thing about the training is the fact that I was taught how to save money from the business, and this has been a major lesson for me, and I can see the improvement. Before I attended the training I had a small business of selling cool drinks and airtime at my house. In June 2015 I started to venture into a new business of renting out rooms. So far I built two rooms with bathrooms to rent. I am hoping to finish the building by June 2016. It was at the Gender Links workshop where I got the information and the encouragement to build these rooms. I am managing to do this project all by myself.” 

During the Sixteen Days of Activism from November 25 to December 10, Gender Links will launch the Sunrise — End Violence, Empower Women campaign to raise funds for 1 000 more women to participate in the programme in 2017. “Sunrise brings a new day, a new beginning. It also conveys the strength that is so inherent in African women. We are looking to break the cycle of violence — for good,” says Lowe Morna.