Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Women Helping Women in Johannesburg's Townships

April 01, 2014

I met Jabulile Tlhabane, 57, in a small woman-owned restaurant on a busy road in Alexandra Township located about 60 minutes outside Johannesburg depending on the time of day and traffic. Alexandra, or Alex as the locals call it, is home to over a million people even though its resident capacity is intended to be capped at 100,000. That means stresses are rife on Alexandra’s overcrowded citizens from a lack of adequate health facilities, increasing teenage pregnancies, largely unreported violence against women, drug abuse, and a general absence of jobs and opportunities. Tlhabane is a longtime member of Rebecca’s Well, a small nonprofit that provides help and healing for women and girls in need as well as microfinance and enterprising skills. I met with Tlhabane to learn more about their work. Rebecca’s Well was started by a Boston woman, Sheila Wise Rowe, who now calls South Africa home with her family.

Tlhabane first joined Rebecca’s Well over a decade ago after her husband abruptly left her and her children. “When I first met Sheila at my local church, she advised me to go for healing," Tlhabane remembers from those difficult early years after her marriage dissolved. “It took me years to get completely healed. I think I spent the first six to seven years crying. I was married to my schoolmate. We were married for twenty-six years and we had six children.”

It’s stories like Tlhabane’s that made Wise Rowe dedicate her life to helping women in Johannesburg area townships including both Alexandra and Soweto who need encouragement and renewed hope to ease towards self-sufficiency.  

Tlhabane is now the director of Rebecca’s Well’s Soweto program where there are both initiatives for women and teens. “The problem is unemployment and women who do not pursue their education,” said Tlhabane about Rebecca’s Well’s work in the biggest township in South Africa. “That is very challenging. People fall pregnant. Those are the things that challenge us.”

But there are success stories. Tlhabane told me about a member of Rebecca’s Well who was at one time homeless without any options, but through assistance from Rebecca’s Well now has a stable job, attends school, and was able to recently purchase her own car.  

Regina Morutu is another success story. She has been a member of Rebecca’s Well since 2009. A young mother of a five-year-old and Soweto resident, Morutu graduated with a B.A. in psychology last year and dreams of getting her masters in forensic psychology. “I came to Rebecca’s Well because I had school problems,” she said. “I dropped out of school because my father passed away and my mother couldn’t afford my school fees, so I took a break.”

Rebecca’s Well helped Morutu get back into school and helped her with school fees as well as with transport costs. “I spend a grand (South African rands) on transport each month and I still have to eat,” Morutu said. “Yes, it is expensive.”

“When people hear about Rebecca’s Well they think it will be a quick fix,” Morutu added. “Some people don’t have the patience to wait and endure. I think their mental state needs to change.”

While Rebecca’s Well isn’t a large scale nonprofit its presence is being felt by women and girls who have little options especially those who become pregnant and need help staying in school and matriculating into college or women who need new skills to earn their own money.

“If it wasn’t for Rebecca’s Well I’d still be at home looking at life in the hood,” said Morutu. “Now I have direction.” 

Learn more about Rebecca's Well's work at rebeccaswell.org

 
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