Designing their Way to a Bright Orange Future: South African Women Celebrate their Achievements

Date: Tuesday, May 31, 2016

EDCon's General Manager of Transformation, Head of the Gauteng Department of Social Development & UN Women South Africa Multi-Country Office Representative
EDCon's General Manager of Transformation, Head of the Gauteng Department of Social Development & UN Women South Africa Multi-Country Office Representative. Credit photo: UN Women / Helen Sullivan

May 25th, 2016 -- Johannesburg. As people from Cape Town to Cairo celebrated Africa Day, the commemoration of the formation of the African Union in 1963, UN Women South Africa MUlti-Country Office (SAMCO), in partnership with retail giant EDCon, the Gauteng Department of Social Development (GPDSD) and the South African Fashion Council (SAFC) turned Turbine Hall in downtown Johannesburg orange as they celebrated the achievements of 44 African women at an award ceremony.

The women, who are survivors of violence, had just completed a mentorship programme as part of the Edgars UNiTE flagship initiative. Edcon launched the “Edgars UNiTE Orange Campaign” on the 25th November 2015, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, in support of the United Nations’ Secretary-General’s UNiTE Campaign to End Violence Against Women.

The UN Secretary General’s UNiTE to End Violence against Women and Girls campaign, which is managed by UN Women, has proclaimed the 25th of each month “Orange Day”, a day devoted to raising awareness and taking action to end violence against women and girls. The colour orange symbolises a bright new future, free from violence.

One of the projects the women completed as part of the programme was to sew a garment that represented their relationship with Sixteen Days of Activism
One of the projects the women completed as part of the programme was to sew a garment that represented their relationship with Sixteen Days of Activism. Photo Credit: UN Women / Helen Sullivan

Though violence against women is against the law in South Africa, it is highly prevalent and many cases go unreported. Reliable statistics on the extent of violence against women in South Africa are difficult to find, but according to interviews conducted in Gauteng in 2010 by civil society organisation Gender Links and the Medical Research Council (MRC) close to half of the women interviewed had experienced some form of violence in their lifetimes. Just one in 25 women raped by their partners had reported the matter to the police, while one in 13 raped by a non-intimate partner reported the incident. The same study found that one in four women had experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetimes, while close to two fifths of men admitted to having perpetrated sexual violence.

At the launch of Edgars UNiTE last year, UN Women SAMCO, EDCon and the Gauteng Department of Social Development pledged to teach sewing and clothing design skills to women from five women’s shelters around Johannesburg, run by the Gauteng Department of Community Safety.

Over the course of the next six months, these women, divided into groups according to the shelters they had come from, learned how to use a sewing machine, draw and use patterns, and make homeware, clothing and accessories. At the event in Johannesburg, each of the groups wore their own matching orange designs, sewn themselves.

The women’s designs were also placed around the event. Among them was a black dress, pregnant belly sewn into the front, with lips closed by a zip and a red heart embroidered on the chest. One of the programme’s projects had been for each of the women to create a garment that represented their relationship with Sixteen Days of Activism.

The celebrations started with a video message from EDCon CEO Bernie Brookes, who stressed the link between women’s economic empowerment and reducing instances of violence against women: “It was important to us that through this project we not only raise awareness of violence against women in South Africa, but most importantly we empower these women.”

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka,  in a video message for event, commended the partnership, saying “I want to ensure you that as UN Women we are your partner through thick and thin”. UN Women SAMCO Representative Anne Githuku-Shongwe stressed the need to not paint survivors of abuse as victims: “You are powerful. You have the potential to be drivers of the economy. And we hope that after this programme you will walk tall knowing that each of these organisations -- organisations filled with women -- are behind you.” Ms Githuku-Shongwe also called on the members of the audience to commit to the HeForShe campaign.

Guests were entertained by students from the South African National School of the Arts
Guests were entertained by students from the South African National School of the Arts. Photo Credit: UN Women / Helen Sullivan

Throughout the event, partners undertook to continue to support and grow the project. Shoki Tshabalala, the Head of the Gauteng Department of Social Development, promised that all linen for Gauteng’s thirteen departments would be procured from the women. The South African Fashion Council committed to link each woman to a South African designer to provide them with further skills and a larger network. EDCon announced that it will be launching the campaign in Kwazulu Natal and the Western Cape in August and November, respectively, this year, before rolling it out to the entire country. Each commitment was met with applause and ululation, and at the end of the speeches Ms Tshabalala led the crowd in singing a Zulu song “Ulungile”, meaning “It is well”.

Then it was time for the prize giving, where participants from one of the groups would be awarded a three month apprenticeship at the SAFC, including a stipend for living and travel expenses, a trip to the 2017 Global Entrepreneurship Summit and a clothing voucher. Each of the women who had participated also received a Sew Africa course, gift hampers, a job placement opportunity within the EDCon supply chain. Each of the five shelters received an industrial sewing machine, domestic over locker and extendable fit dummy courtesy of the GPDSD.

The atmosphere was electric as the winning group was announced (the shelter’s name cannot be revealed to protect the identities of any of the women participating). The winners sang and danced, with many bursting into tears, causing the speakers to burst into tears, too.

It is anticipated that the initiative will help the women survivors to break the cycle of violence as they become economically empowered. Research conducted by the SAFC found that each woman employed in the clothing and textile industry supports an average of four people on her income.