A platform for women: NAU professor assesses progress of South Africa’s unique program for women immigrants

Women's Platform group shot 2015

By Heidi Toth
NAU Communications

Leah Mundell remembered the woman who rushed into a meeting, apologizing for her tardiness. She was waiting on a train. The rest of the women nodded; in their adopted home of Cape Town, South Africa, the trains frequently broke down, leaving passengers stranded, helpless and late.

What was atypical about that woman’s experience that day was her response, which Mundell, a lecturer of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, paraphrased:

“Today, instead of getting stressed out, I just got out my beads and started beading. It calmed me down so much to be producing something at a time when I had no control over other things.”

Mundell, who was a community organizer before she was a lecturer, was in Cape Town to assess the progress of the Scalabrini Centre’s Women’s Platform, a project started three years ago to help women learn job skills, network and rebuild their lives after fleeing poverty- or war-stricken countries. She was there when it started with the idea of being for and run by immigrant women. She returned to determine how well these goals were being met.

African alliances

Mundell was looking for a project that allowed her to get involved with the community—“Honestly, it’s just so hard for me to get excited about research that feels distant from the community”—so when she moved to South Africa for a year and connected with the Scalabrini Centre, it was a good fit. The Scalabrini Centre is an organization to help refugees, with a variety of programs to meet different needs, including offering English classes, an employment access center, a legal department and a welfare desk to help people find food and shelter.

Mundell arrived as the Women’s Platform was being created. It started when a migrant from Zimbabwe asked Scalabrini leaders if they would provide support for a program her Zimbabwean women’s group started—a stockvel in which each member would put in a little money each month and all the money would go to one woman to help her start a business.

The leaders of the Scalabrini Centre said yes. They also asked for help in creating similar support organizations among other refugee and migrant groups. For the first year, the Women’s Platform existed to help women from various national groups build income-generating endeavors.

Leah Mundell with Women's Platform participant's child
Leah Mundell holds a child of a Women’s Platform participant.

The Congolese women expanded their already established sewing collective, buying sewing machines and giving classes to other women. The Somali women offered child care. The Malawian women wanted to start a bakery. The groups from Rwanda and Burundi also were interested in eateries. With some international funding, including money from the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the Women’s Platform took off.

It, unsurprisingly, was more complicated, which Mundell learned when she returned this summer to assess the group’s progress. The progress of the Women’s Platform has to be considered in terms of the politics, laws and inequity in South Africa and its changing attitudes toward foreigners.

The changing state of immigration

Since the end of apartheid, South Africa has had some of the most supportive laws for refugees and migrants, Mundell said. Refugees need papers to work, but as soon as the process for a work visa is started they are legally able to work and can rent an apartment and go about their lives as needed. There are no refugee camps.

Today South Africa has refugees and migrants from all over Africa, with Zimbabwe, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Angola among the largest groups. Those from Somalia, DRC and other countries that are at war are usually granted asylum (refugee status), and immigrants from neighboring Zimbabwe have access to a special temporary permit that allows them to work or study legally in South Africa. People from places like Malawi, who are fleeing extreme poverty, are considered economic migrants and don’t have the same protections as refugees.

There are other differences in these immigrant groups as well. Migrants from Malawi are less likely to have viable skill sets and good educations, but many refugees from DRC were professionals in their country of origin before fleeing the war. Zimbabwe boasts an excellent education system, so Zimbabwean refugees generally speak perfect English and are in high demand. Complicating the dynamics even more is South Africa’s high unemployment rate and poor educational system, meaning some employers would rather hire immigrants.

All of this has contributed to a tightening of immigration in recent years. The country has closed refugee reception offices in many cities, leaving just three open, which means a multi-day bus trip for many migrants who have to renew their immigration paperwork every few months. Twice in the last decade South Africa has seen large outbreaks of xenophobic violence, with immigrant shops burned and shopkeepers attacked.

“There’s just been this kind of squeeze,” Mundell said. “It’s attrition by enforcement.”

However, people keep coming because South Africa is still better than the countries from which they’re fleeing. And they’re trying to be part of the larger community, she said. Refugees from Somalia are opening small businesses and hiring South African workers. They’re creating their own jobs—car guard is now an income-generating position—and all of the resources at the Women’s Platform are open to South African women as well.

A few years removed from the Women’s Platform opening, Mundell knew it was working. But she wanted to know if it was working the way it was supposed to when it opened.

Research results

women's Platform photo exhibit Leah Mundell
Leah Mundell prepares a photo exhibit of the women who took part in the Women’s Platform.

The stated purpose of the Women’s Platform was to empower women to help each other and themselves. Mundell found that wasn’t happening in quite the way the founders envisioned—it had returned to an organization in which employees offered services to clients—but women were getting help, support and skills from their participation, both in obvious physical and financial ways and in less direct ways.

One such example was the woman whose train was late. She worked in a hair salon, where business had been declining because so many people had opened hair styling businesses. She worried often about whether she would make enough money to support her family. When the woman joined the Women’s Platform, she took a class on beading. The class was created with the purpose of giving women the ability to create something for which people would pay.

It did that—but it also provided a creative outlet and a way of relieving stress, leading to a better quality of life removed from financial benefits.

“A lot of what came out of the focus groups was hearing some of the non-economic impacts of what was originally planned as a training to generate income,” Mundell said.

The centre also offered a child care course, which enabled the women to earn a certificate that would help them in getting jobs. But many women shared how learning about child development helped them with their children.

Mundell mentioned one participant who told the group she’d been a strong disciplinarian who beat her children. This course helped her learn better methods of discipline and she’d changed her parenting as a result. Nor was she the only one who noticed the difference.

“She said her little one said, ‘Mommy, you should go back to those classes because that made you a better mommy,’” Mundell said.

On top of the skills learned and connections made for potential jobs, just being around other women in similar situations with similar histories helped these migrant women create communities where they could find support.

“People were figuring out how to navigate the system from the other women and realizing that some of these groups that they had thought of as very different from themselves were really experiencing all the same challenges as migrants that they were,” Mundell said.

After her month in South Africa, Mundell is writing a report for use by both the Scalabrini Centre and its donors. This project also included a photographic exhibit of the women involved in the Women’s Platform. It opened at the Holocaust Center of Cape Town for World Refugee Day in 2015, and after Mundell returned to Flagstaff she’s gotten requests from various groups to display it locally. The exhibit, which has expanded to include refugees in Arizona, has been displayed at a number of locations, including the Martin-Springer Institute in the spring.

People interested in the exhibit may contact Mundell at leah.mundell@nau.edu.

NAU Communications