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Skills development can ‘empower rural women’

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Nonhlanhla Makhedama struggles to farm at KwaMaphumulo area in KwaZulu-Natal. Over the past thirty-three years, the Women’s Development Bank has made several interventions to address the alleviation of poverty among women living in rural areas., the writers say. – Picture: Bongani Mbatha / African News Agency (ANA) / October 15, 2019

By Zanele Mbeki and Mojanku Gumbi

Thirty years into our democracy, the levels of poverty, particularly in the rural areas of South Africa, remains stubbornly high. Women living in rural areas suffer the most from the negative effects of poverty.

As we march along into the next thirty years, we hope to persuade our government to create a better enabling environment to implement poverty alleviation programmes.

Of course, there are myriad reasons for the persistence of poverty, which includes the historic triple burden borne by black women; low literacy; ineffective skills development education programmes; rampant corruption and poor service delivery in healthcare facilities. Rural women and youth face the utmost challenges on a daily basis.

Rural Women Challenges

Impoverished communities live miserable lives due to a lack of access to basic amenities like water, health and hygiene, education, food, shelter, water and sanitation, nutrition and other necessities.

Poverty can be tackled in part by developing and implementing sustained economic growth and social policies and programmes, implementing financial inclusion programmes, giving priority to skills development not only in urban but also in the rural areas of our country and promoting gender equality in the country.

According to United Nations Women, women make up more than 50 percent of Africa’s population, and 80 percent of them reside in rural areas.

Africa has a long way to go in reducing poverty. South Africa is struggling to implement and sustain poverty alleviation programmes.

Addressing Rural Poverty

Targeted action is needed to dismantle poverty. Fortunately, amongst others, information and communication technologies, including mobile and electronic communication, provide rural women with alternative avenues to access information related to their rights, services and resources, such as identification card applications, health services, facilities to address gender-based violence and agriculture and food security programmes and many others.

Mobilising Resources for Integrated Poverty Reduction

It is a pity that unlike in some other countries, South Africa does not have an appropriate regulatory framework for women who need micro loans.

Micro enterprises are treated in the same way as small businesses with regard to compliance requirements, which places an undue burden on them.

The women who sell fat-cakes or small traditional ginger drinks outside schools, or the women who sell tripe in the villages and need a small loan to buy a fridge to keep it fresh find it difficult to navigate all the compliance requirements for registration and maintenance of companies.

The need to invest in rural women is imperative. During the past 30 years of democracy, a variety of strategies, including non-formal education, vocational training in new technologies and literacy and numeracy training, agricultural extension services and many others, have been used to address the various challenges rural women face.

That is why the Women’s Development Bank (WDB) Trust was conceptualised to mobilise resources to support an integrated poverty reduction strategy which links poor households to finance and a basket of development services; enterprise opportunities and training in order to build productive and sustainable family and community livelihoods.

The 30-year journey has been exciting. We have watched women thrive as their communities benefited from our programmes.

Over the past thirty-three years the WDB has made several interventions to address the alleviation of poverty among women living in rural areas. It intervenes in communities in different ways. It runs the following projects:

The trust’s programmes include:

  • Zenzele Development Programme, a psychosocial support programme which also facilitates poverty eradication in the communities in nodal areas through the Asset Based Community Development strategy for sustainable community-driven development. Our Zenzele staff stays with a community for three years, to ensure real improvement of their families’ lives;
  • Microfinance Programme, to promote and support financial inclusion of women and support for their micro businesses;
  • Training Academy Programme, a ‘go-to’ institution for skills training for poverty reduction, initially for participants in the micro-finance and other Trust programmes, but currently including community basic ICTs, health lifestyle and digitisation training;
  • Pan-African Advocacy, to link women from across the African continent in support of their development, through the African Women in Dialogue and the Zanele Mbeki Fellowship programmes.

All these programmes have been made possible through the generous support of South Africans, in particular South African corporates.

The WDB Trust also established a company in 1996, WDB Investment Holdings (WDBIH) to generate income for the Trust. The company is 100 percent owned by the Trust and all the dividends it declares are paid to the Trust.

WDBIH has a Board and staff independent from the Trust and buys shares in different companies. It does not have individual shareholders.

Unique and Innovative Programmes

Investing in women is an imperative to development. Women often have different needs than men due to their societal standing, as well as the continuing imbalance in the divisions of labour for managing or undertaking domestic tasks, such as taking care of or raising children.

By creating unique and innovative programmes, we provide additional outlets to serve those in need.

Our Training Academy Programme has proved that access to education and training does have a positive impact on income-generating opportunities and overall well-being of women living in rural areas.

Recently, this skills training segment has seen more than 550 women graduate in the KwaZulu-Natal districts of Thukela, Msunduzi, Ray Nkonyeni, Nkandla, Ukhahlamba and Umvoti, after learning basic computer skills, including operating the Microsoft software in IsiZulu.

Their newly acquired skills have made it possible for them to assume positions that would not have been open to them before.

This has been an ongoing initiative to support the practical development and inclusion of rural women. Some of the women trained are using their computer skills to good use, as assistants in offices; an area of work that was closed to them.

The approach is to find synergy among different programmes, in order to maximise the impact. As we enter the next thirty years, we hope to work harder to improve the plight of women, working together with our sister partners such as Wiphold and Nozala, among others.

Indeed, an integrated approach to poverty relief has been shown to move women out of poverty at a faster rate. The WDB approach connects women to public services, which in turn increases the gross family income in those families that participate in the micro-lending programme, while at the same time skilling them.

Investing in skills for the socio-economic empowerment of rural women is key to improving rural productivity, employability, and income-earning opportunities, enhancing food security and promoting environmentally sustainable rural development and livelihoods.

It is a small contribution to poverty relief that we are very honoured to be a part of during the past 30 years of democracy.

Zanele Mbeki Is the Founder And Patron Of WDB Trust. Mojanku Gumbi is the Non-Executive Chairperson of WDBIH and a Trustee of the WDB Trust.