This is Part I of the PepsiCorps Supports Sustainable Agriculture and Gender Empowerment in South Africa series. Read Part II here.
I entered a meeting room at the Blouberg Hospital for our first meeting with members of the Blouberg Farmers Business Association (BFBA). In Blouberg, a poor rural community in South Africa’s Limpopo Province, I expected the most influential people in the room to be men. Walking in, I was pleased to find that half of the members were women! I was excited to learn that women in Blouberg do have a voice.
Traveling half-way around the world from Mexico, my native country, I found myself in South Africa participating in PepsiCorps, an innovative skill-based volunteer program that sends eight PepsiCo associates from around the world to spend one month using their talents to help local communities address societal challenges. My team was supporting Heifer International South Africa, an NGO that works to provide people with the skills and resources they need to expand their options for the future. Our task was to improve the quality of life of low-income families by developing sustainable agriculture, animal health care, and bee-keeping projects that will improve the lives of many in the community.
My team, which included Maggie Connors, a Pepsi brand manager based in New York, and Kristin Danganan, a Senior Director of Customer Sales Strategy, based in Orlando, needed to help the leaders of the community form the Blouberg Farmers Business Association, an institution that will guide, train, and provide market opportunities to secure the future of 2,100 small farmers in the Blouberg area. At the same time, we were mentoring 12th grade girls from a local school by assisting them with their university application forms.
Raising Women’s Voices
During my time in South Africa, I talked to all the women we met. I listened to them, learned from them, and tried carefully to understand how social dynamics affect their realities, as well as the difficulties they had to overcome to raise their families and become a source of inspiration in their communities.
During the first session with the BFBA, I noticed that women were a little bit intimidated by the rest of the group, but as the days passed, they started to feel comfortable voicing their ideas and participating in the activities we organized. “Betty for president” shouted Maggie, when Betty, one of the BFBA members, decided bravely to address the crowd by presenting the ideas about leadership that she and her group developed during the second day we were together.
The eight girls we mentored surprised me greatly, too. Many of them had lost at least one parent to HIV and lived in the Blouberg townships, where lack of physical safety and poverty are a fact of daily live. Yet, each one of them dreamed of achieving something great in life. Every one of them wanted to go to the university, have a career, and perhaps later, marry and have children.
During Apartheid, women in South Africa were exceptionally marginalized and overlooked. In the last decade, the South African government has worked to overcome this disadvantage by promoting gender equality and making women’s rights a critical foundation of progress. In 1992, South Africa approved one of the most female-friendly constitutions in the world, including a number of articles that protected gender equality in the political, legal, and social realms. The Commission on Gender Equality was created to foster a society free from gender discrimination, and any other form of oppression through exposing gender discrimination in laws, policies, and practices; advocating for changes in sexist attitudes and gender stereotypes. According to the World Bank, women now make up 42 percent of legislators in South Africa compared to the 3 percent figure during apartheid.
Bridging the Gender Gap
Yet, women, especially those in rural areas, still face many obstacles to their livelihoods and careers. Many are illiterate, and as a result, largely unaware of the legal structures built to protect them. In addition, South Africa exists under juridical pluralism, where on the one hand, there is national legislation consistent with international human rights law and with international treaties on women’s rights, like the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1995. But, on the other hand, consuetudinary norms, which are directly tied to the authority of the so-called “traditional leaders” who resist social change, are still in place. These actors are particularly powerful in rural areas and usually promote traditional or religious laws based on a very conservative idea of female identity and female roles in society.
Therefore, the work of NGOs, like Heifer International South Africa, is crucial to create awareness and promote gender equality among rural communities and to help women find their voice. Heifer encourages men and women to work side by side in equally respected roles and responsibilities, sharing in the decision making as well as in the benefits the animals and training bring. “It is all about empowering women,” said Dr. Christopher Akob, Director of Programmes of Heifer International South Africa. “That is why we include gender and family focus as one of our main cornerstones.”
I witnessed firsthand the importance of women leading community efforts when our team visited some of the women that lead the Khongode Project in the northern Limpopo province. Heifer began the project in 2011 with 25 families receiving goats and training to keep them healthy, with the aim of eradicating hunger in the community. The project has now expanded to 32 families in the community through what Heifer refers to as the Passing on the Gift, or when families that receive resources—such as livestock, seeds, or training—pass them on to other families in their community. Phungo Ntuwiseni Noria, one of the community leaders, told me about her four children. When I asked her about her husband, she laughed and said, “We don’t get married here…but the goats are helping me to support my children.” She sells the goats and uses the income to pay for school and household items.
In this respect, the usual gender differentiation in farming is apparent. In Khongode, women do the household gardening and small livestock management to fulfill their responsibility as care givers and to put food on the table on a daily basis. When there is a man to help provide in the household, they are more concerned with management of large livestock and field cropping.
Women Working Together
During my participation in PepsiCorps, I was very fortunate to meet wonderful women who have voices that are driving positive change in their communities. I am confident that community leaders such as Betty, Salomina, Magdalane, Suzan, Marry, and Ngwakoana will lead the BFBA to great success. Blouberg Hospital HIV Coordinator, Mrs. Kgatla, told me with a proud smile on her face that, thanks to her determination, the HIV Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission Program (PMTCT) has reached a 97 percent success rate in the area. Rahab, one of the young women I mentored, is a bright and hopeful 12th grade girl who I am sure will reach her dream. She aspires to go to university to become a social worker, to better enable her to help her community.
These talented South African women, as well as my fellow female PepsiCorps participants, are an inspiring example of the important role that we all play in helping each woman in the world find her voice. As global leaders and former PepsiCorps participants, we now have the responsibility to bring back to the workplace the skills, perspectives, and insights gained during this experience to help advance PepsiCo’s Performance with Purpose goal. This experience has truly motivated me to focus promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives within PepsiCo and the communities where we serve, to encourage women to find their voice, pursue their dreams, and unleash their potential.
Palmira Camargo is Director of Strategic Communications and Corporate Citizenship at PepsiCo Mexico. Before joining PepsiCo in 2005, she worked as a Corporate Lawyer, joining the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 2000 as a Consultant of the Department of Social Development. Throughout her 4 years at the IDB, Camargo participated in the design and execution of several projects to spur social development in Latin America and the Caribbean.