shocking reason why

The shock that drove me to empower women in Africa

JulietGeneral, women empowerment

The shock felt like a glacial dagger plunged into my heart. OMG. This could never, ever, ever be allowed to happen again.

I looked at the newspaper story again – it was four short paragraphs describing a recent court case. But what had led to it, was simply horrifying. How desperate could you be to resort to killing your own two year old son so that you didn’t have to watch him wasting away from starvation and disease like his siblings? How could anyone have to have face this awful choice? “Rudo” a single mother was now sentenced to years in prison – years in which the rest of her children would be abandoned, her family shamed and scorned, and most likely all of them would starve to death.

In her defence she cried that she couldn’t bear watching him suffer, that she had no choice, no job, no help, and no other option. And she was telling the truth. She’d already used up all the help she could from family and friends. There were no handouts or loans available. The state, charities and churches were stretched beyond capacity during the hungry season. There were no jobs, no opportunities to get a loan and she didn’t own any collateral. There were no orphanages nearby, no relatives would take in the child – so what could she do? She was out of luck, out of options, out of hope. What she did was a last resort, an act of sheer desperation and compassion for her child.

I tried to imagine the agony of that choice – that moment when the fear and horror overwhelmed her, that suffering, that heartbreak and despair – but it was too much to bear. Desperately keen to distract myself from the pain and sadness, I googled for other news stories.

And it was then that the full horror of the situation hit me. This story wasn’t just one isolated incident. It had happened over and over again. And if there are regular newspaper reports of stories like these, how many more times do women face awful situations and have to resort to acts of desperation like this one?

How could I ignore this shock, forget this story, and go back to a more ordinary life knowing this? It was unthinkable. This was the biggest call to action I’d ever received. Right there and then I vowed to find a way to make a difference. A way to empower women with the skills, resources, opportunities and support to have real choices in life – to be able to lift themselves and their families out of desperate situations and prosper. I had no idea how I could change the situation, how one person could make a difference to a problem so vast, so fierce, so complex – but I would never give up until things changed for women like Rudo.

And so I began the next chapter of my life – transitioning from being a high level strategic advisor to governments and the UN on social development and public health, to being an under-resourced maverick change-maker, determined to disrupt the status quo that leads to acts of desperation like this for women in southern Africa.

Things are underway, and momentum – although painfully slow in my eyes – is building. The resilience, and potential, and entrepreneurial skill that African women possess never ceases to amaze me. Zimbabwe has a mind-boggling rate of unemployment – something like 95%, although accurate statistics are hard to find. So most women already are entrepreneurs – not by choice, but by necessity.

There are other projects that work to help women’s cooperatives and micro-enterprises, but there is a gap in service provision at the middle level – the small to medium businesses that are established but struggling to maintain profitability in a challenging operating environment. Women invest 90% of their income in their families and communities. If we can get women-owned businesses to grow their profits, we can unlock the power and potential of women-based enterprise as a catalyst for social and economic development in the entire country.

So I’ve launched a social enterprise, the Women’s Enterprise Success Alliance (WESA), here in Zimbabwe, which supports women business owners to grow their profits, so that they can become financial sustainable, and peer mentor the next group of up-and-coming business leaders. We’re working to create a more supportive environment for women business owners. We’re advising the launch of the pioneering national women’s owned verified business label. We’re amplifying the voices and visibility of role models and champions for the programme (men are some of our best advocates of course – we want them to be included too!).

Movement building starts off as a slow process of small, continuous steps, of barely perceptible impact – as one by one women entrepreneurs learn new skills and strategies, gain confidence and start to see results. And slowly the wave of change is building – ripple by ripple.

This International Women’s Day we certainly joined in the global celebrations of incredible women leaders we have in all fields and societies. We also renewed our vows to take action, to keep mobilising, training and collaborating to create more and better options for women.

And we’d like to invite you to support us. We need all hands on deck to empower women – men, women, policy makers, citizens, armchair activists and advocates. If you support this cause, if you’d like to help mentor women in Africa, or grow your impact, influence and positioning while empowering women entrepreneurs in Africa, please do get in touch.

Juliet Le Breton is a global changemaker and social entrepreneur who empowers women to grow their businesses and scale up their impact. She gave a TEDx talk on “Sex, Money and Divine Inspiration: how growing women enterprise can accelerate the end of AIDS in Southern Africa” and is an international development consultant and strategic advisor to the UN, aid agencies, non profits and multinational corporations.