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Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Stories of rebel girls and real superwomen sparked conversation at a special series of senior school sessions this past term. The set of discussions led up to Women’s Day and included conversations about menstruation, sexual and reproductive health, gender dynamics, safety and self-esteem.

Topics such as these may be discussed in school, but are often uncomfortable to speak about at home or in class due to the age difference between teachers or guardians and learners. Zonke Banjwa and Asipe Swana, who approached Axium through the Jabulani Rural Health Foundation, want to step into this gap as a support for learners.

“They are not far from our age. If they talk to an adult, they won’t really be open and talkative, but if they start talking to us maybe they will try and open up,” said Asipe, who is currently working and studying as a Pharmacy Assistant.

Asipe and Zonke are the powerhouse pair behind Channel for Living, a fledgling project that aims to create new opportunities, experiences and conversations for young people, and particularly young women, in Zithulele.

Two sessions during Ekukhuleni’s July Bootcamp were the first official talks of their project, involving feedback and questions from the learners. “This is for them to gain their confidence and know that they are not alone through every problem they are facing. That we are here to help them,” Zonke said. “It was so exciting and the girls were so interested in the talk.”

Channel for Living has varied origins. Zonke and Asipe had been wanting to shake things up for a while, feeling that there were not enough recreational activities available for young people in the area. “Maybe for about 2 years, we didn’t know where to start,” Asipe said, while Zonke spoke about the Stay Free Girl’s Club and starting the Miss Zithulele Talent Show as their first endeavors.

These initiatives crystalized into their current form when Zonke began seeking donations of menstrual pads for young women in the area. Zonke - who describes herself as “born and bred in Zithulele” - works as an HIV and TB counsellor at the Zithulele Hospital. She realised that many girls are unable to afford menstrual pads and battle to attend school during their cycles. Concerned that some might end up struggling on their own because the issue is a sensitive one to speak about, she started seeking donations for essential pads and looking into the possibility of school-based talks.

The founders hope that Channel for Living community dialogues will eventually be filmed and available on Youtube so they can be accessed beyond Zithulele. They envision this as a creative project for young people, by young people; a platform for discussing youth concerns with a focus on girls. They are currently getting assistance to register the project so that they can start officially raising funds.

“The main reason for all this we’re trying to do is because, me and Zonke, we’re passionate about the youth, especially young girls,” Asipe explained. “Last year we started Miss Zithulele. From there, we felt like there’s more that we can do. We wanted to give back to the community. We started this project. It’s about girls, but we’ve also started to involve boys too because we don’t want to sideline them.”

The two feel it is important for boys to be involved in conversations about so-called “women’s issues” and have brought JV Nkqwili on as a third partner to help with this.

“Almost all the boys don’t really think they have an influence on girls. But they are the ones who approach girls,” said Asipe. “I feel like most boys don’t sit with their fathers – maybe they grew up with out them – so they can teach them how life is. So I feel like they get advice from their peers and sometimes it’s bad advice; most of the time it’s bad advice!”

Gender dynamics were tackled again during a Women’s Day session in August. The Ekukhuleni tutors facilitated a gender-based “Privilege Walk” together with Thuliswa Nodada of the Careers Portfolio. This interactive exercise was designed to help learners understand gender-based privilege and oppression through delving into their own experiences and highlighting problems that especially affect women.

“I think most of them understood the seriousness of it,” commented David de Gruchy, whose English sessions were the space for the activity. “Definitely everyone could see the gender divide.”

Lively discussion took place in a debrief Thuli led after the exercise. Learners were then given the chance to reflect individually while reading extracts from the book Bedtime Stories for Rebel Girls.

All in all, it has been a powerful time for women to work together and hopefully Channel for Living will grow to take conversations like these further. “I would like to see all the children have something to do, to see Zithulele changing,” Zonke said. Asipe added that, “Even if we make a change to one person, that’s going to be something.”

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