“Women always wanted to be actively involved,” says advocate and attorney Melene Cynthia Rossouw. “They just didn’t know how to come together.”
Melene is an attorney from South Africa. She currently serves as an Obama Foundation leader, member of the Future Africa Forum for Governance, and spokeswoman for the Bill & Melinda Gates ONE Campaign. She is the founder of the Women Lead Movement.
The Women Lead Movement (Facebook: Women Lead Movement) is an organization that promotes gender equality and participatory citizenry. Melene’s campaign strategies focus on advocacy, entrepreneurial training, and legislative education. After founding the organization, Melene realized that women “didn’t want to only be educated.” As she explains, “They wanted to do something more. They wanted to move from education into action.” Starting from the community level, the Women Lead Movement works to give women the skills to lead socially and politically.
Melene’s inspiration stems from growing up with a single mother. “The reason why I ultimately became a gender activist,” she shares, “is because of the examples that my mom would set in my childhood.”
Melene also believes in the importance of everyday citizens getting involved in their local and national governments. “If you claim to be a democratic country,” Melene explains, “you need to involve your citizens far beyond elections.”
Sonnie Lawrence, a talk show host from Liberia and another 2019 Mandela Washington Fellow, interviews Melene in this YALI Voices podcast. Listen to the full podcast or read the transcript below to find out how Melene is facilitating community change and overcoming the challenges of achieving gender equality and civic engagement.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: MELENE CYNTHIA ROSSOUW
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
SONNIE LAWRENCE: Hello, young African leaders, welcome to the YALI Voices podcast, your home for the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. My name is Sonnie Christine Lawrence. I’m a 2019 Mandela Washington fellow from Liberia. I attended the Civic Leadership Institute at the Presidential Precinct in Virginia. Thank you for joining us.
I am the founder and executive director of Agents of Positive Change, a nongovernmental organization that works to empower young people by providing education for them. I am also presenter of a career talk radio show that motivates, inspires and encourages young people to choose careers based on their passion and based on their interests.
Today I’m with Melene Rossouw, a 2019 Mandela Fellow from South Africa. Melene is an attorney with 12 years of experience in legal, governmental and nongovernmental sectors. She is a founder of the Women Lead Movement, an organization that promotes social empowerment initiatives in local communities and advocates for social and political change.
Melene’s commitment to social justice and gender equality have been recognized by several international organizations. She is an inaugural Obama Foundation leader in Africa, a Future Africa Forum for Governance contributor, and a spokeswoman for the global campaign on gender equality by the One Foundation.
Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on things YALI.
MELENE CYNTHIA ROSSOUW: I am very excited to be here with you today, Sonnie. Thank you very much for having me on this podcast.
SONNIE: Thank you, too, for making yourself available to be part of this podcast. Kindly can you tell us a bit about yourself? What was it like growing up? And you can also talk about the passion that you have for advocacy for women.
MELENE: Thank you very much. So, I grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. And unfortunately, and it’s one of the things that we saw, challenging in South Africa — I am considered a mixed race or colored, which is part of the minority people in South Africa.
And obviously as we would know, you know, minorities don’t always have — they have the same rights, but they’re not given equal recognition as some of the other more majority groups within South Africa itself.
So, the context in which I grew up was the following. It was an impoverished community, high unemployment; there was a lot of abuse of women in particular and children that took place. Gang violence — very rife. So that was the context that was sort of my background.
I also grew up in a single-parent household, and it’s very important that I mention this, because the reason why I ultimately became a gender activist is because of the examples that my mom would set in my childhood growing up as well.
So, as I mentioned, she was a single parent, she was an educator, but she was also a community worker. She used to work a lot with abused children and women within the community itself. And I can never recall one situation or incident where my sister and my mom and I were alone, because my mom always used to have these women and their children living with us, whether it was women that was running away from their husbands because they were abused or children that were raped within the family. There were even girls that were living with us that had HIV, because of the molestation and the sexual violence that was perpetrated against them.
So as a 9-, 10-,11-year-old girl growing up, that was my reality, and I think that led to, sort of motivated me to go into this particular direction. Though it was never my intention to start an NGO and to do work on gender equality, I think that my experiences collectively has led me down this path, and I don’t think that I would want to do anything different than what I’m doing now.
SONNIE: Wow. And you talk about the fact that your mother actually made that really the biggest impact in your life. Can you just tell me what specific — what was her service, or kind of, what were those characteristics she had that actually kind of impacted you the most when it comes to her work.
MELENE: Two things. She had humility. And that was the first lesson she taught me. She said it doesn’t matter who you are, what you have. You should be humble. You should have compassion — that was the second thing — for people, whether or not they are like you, whether or not they have what you have, you need to have a kind of compassion, that love and that care for your neighbor. And those two were fundamental. Obviously, education; she believed in education as the primary, but in terms of the kind of qualities that I should have as an individual, was to have humility and to become passionate.
MELENE: So I did my law degree, and then I went to practice. And I realized that I actually didn’t like practicing law. But during my time studying law, I fell in love with a particular aspect of the law, and that was the constitutional law and human rights law.
And suddenly this passion for law just — you know, specifically human rights law — started to grow. And I really started internalizing it as well. Then the second level of my experience was going to the Constitutional Court. And there sort of my passion for human rights and the constitution really deepened, because there I worked with cases — real-life cases of people, communities — where the human rights are being violated. At this point I wasn’t fighting for gender equality. I was really looking at human rights really broadly, looking at our constitution and the right that is afforded for people in South Africa. What is being done and what is not being done?
During my time at the Constitutional Court of South Africa, I think that was one of the most profound experiences in my life because my passion that I developed at university for human rights deepened, because there I worked with some of the most profound judges in South Africa in itself, and I worked on very profound cases. I did the research mostly and wrote little opinions for the judges.
But there I sort of really understood what human rights was all about, the bigger picture issues. And when I left the sort of legal space, and that was in 2010, I worked in national government.
And I was very young at the time. And I thought — obviously, politics has also been something that I enjoyed. It wasn’t necessarily something that I studied, but I’d sort of become an accidental politician by working with some very senior political leaders like former President Jacob Zuma, also as an adviser to two of the Cabinet ministers.
And I thought that that was going to be it for me in terms of my experience, and this is where I want to work and really bring my contributions in this space. But it wasn’t like that. Not that all my experience in government was negative, but my experience in the government taught me how things should not be done.
And it was there where I realized that the voice of society, of the people, was being oppressed. They were not being heard. Laws were being made at national government level that people on the ground did not really understand how it would be implemented and what effect it would have on their lives.
There’s a narrative that says that if you really want change, you need to work for government because you need to change from the inside. But I actually didn’t think of it in that way at all. I actually saw the role of the citizen, the people outside of government influencing the government, and how decisions are being taken, and how policies are being designed, and how policies are being implemented by mostly the influence of the public.
And I wanted to be part of that space. And then, obviously coupled with the fact that I was always either the youngest in those positions, ’cause it was very senior positions, very little females that used to assume those positions. So I was always sort of the minority in each and every context.
SONNIE: But also, did you also feel somehow — I don’t want to use this word — kind of intimidated by the fact that you were like the youngest to be part in that kind of decisionmaking in that level? Did you have any sort of feeling while serving that position?
MELENE: I think at first I was, but I felt more irritated, because I was educated. I didn’t feel that my age should count. I felt that I had something to contribute. I felt that I had the work ethic to really drive change if given the opportunity, at the table, to sit down at the table with these political men to also add my voice.
But I was not given that opportunity. And so I was irritated more than — what was the word that you used? Intimidated? Yes. And I thought to myself, you know, how many other women, not only in government — in business, in civil society out there — feels exactly the same? They are educated, they are capacitated, they are capable, but they are not given the opportunities to raise their voice, to give an opinion, to drive change. And I thought, OK, if the system is not going to give me this opportunity, I’m going to create my own opportunity, not only for myself but for the women that will be part of this movement.
SONNIE: Exactly. And I honestly agree with you when it comes to women out there whose voices are not being heard who feel really intimidated that men are in the power and it should just be men, and we women should just be at the back.
So what are you doing, what kind of positive impacts have your work had on your community? The fact that you’re advocating for women, and you want women voices to be heard and women should take leadership positions. Basically, how far or what impact so far have you been able to have on the lives of women there in South Africa — Cape Town specifically?
MELENE: Cape Town. Yes. So the intention really is not to only have it in Cape Town. We are moving now to the neighboring provinces of the northern Cape and the eastern Cape within South Africa. And so the last two years, because I registered my company in 2017, so we’ve been active for two years.
So, I started the Women Lead Movement back in February 2017, so we are a young organization, you know, and we’re gaining momentum, and it has been two years, but it has been a beautiful, very inspiring two years.
Our main idea for the Women Lead Movement was really to educate first. It was to educate communities. At that time we weren’t also excluding men and children from this education because everyone needs education on the constitution, on the human rights, on the role and the function of the state, and how to get involved in local government decisionmaking.
Why? Because the politicians, after elections, they exclude the citizenry from decisionmaking processes, and we felt that it was wrong. If you claim to be a democratic country, you need to involve your citizens far beyond elections.
Elections are not the only time when democracy is really, or you can say that democracy is in action. It’s not. ‘Cause there’s a representative arm of democracy, and there’s a participatory arm of democracy. What is happening within the participatory element?
We realized that if people really wanted to participate effectively and really raise their voices effectively, they needed education; they needed some level of understanding as to how government operates, how to infiltrate the system, how to raise complaints, how to make suggestions, how to influence certain things. They didn’t know.
So we started off on that, and there was a lot more women that used to come to these gatherings, to these meetings that we would have in the communities. I think the ratio would be 80/20 in favor of women.
And then we realized, these women wanted to do something more. They didn’t want to only be educated. They wanted to move from education into action. What can we do now to effect change? And so now we’re starting to look at things like advocacy and campaigning and petitioning. And making sure that women are represented. We focus grassroots level. We focus in community because we believe that the real change will happen at the community level.
So, part of our strategy — and I mean, we’re still evolving — is getting our women into seats of office at local government, whether it’s the school governing board. Because women have never been given really access and the opportunity to lead. Not even in their families, because the men are the heads, you know.
Not even in the church; the pastor will always be a male. Not even in local government. The local councilor will be male. Mostly dominated by males. And what we are saying in the Women Lead Movement is give women the opportunity to lead socially, to lead politically, and eventually they will lead economically, but it starts from the community level.
SONNIE: I definitely agree with your aim and objective, especially when it comes to pushing that gender equality. And back in Liberia, it’s a kind of issue also we face back there when it comes to women not being in power and leadership positions. We have mostly men-dominated.
So, basically, can you kindly, what was one of the hardest things you have to do when it comes to overcoming? Because the change in society from the kind of notion of men always being the lead, always taking leadership roles, and kind of like educating the mindset of people out there about women into leadership. What has been the hardest part of your work and your organization when it comes to the aspect of advocating, the aspect of reaching out there and educating both the women and the men and children and the community at large? What have been your challenges?
MELENE: One of the things that I had to overcome, and I mean this probably will sound a surprise, but I think the biggest was overcoming myself, overcoming my mind. When you are born, you’re born into a certain belief and value structure — sort of the norms that you ascribe to. And for me, I am one of those people that believe in self-introspection all the time — evaluating where I am, my progress, what biases do I still have. Because if I want to be an effective leader, I really need to get rid of any bias or any value that will derail me from the vision.
My vision is not the Melene vision. My vision is for women. It’s a woman’s vision. It’s for gender equality. So, I need to be very neutral in that space. I can’t have dominant religious views and cultural views and “this is how things should be.” I have to be open to listen to new ideas because the Women Lead Movement is evolving.
My intention is not to be in the movement forever, because that is also a challenge, if you have one leader being in an organization for a very long time, because you sort of infiltrate and have this toxic behavior of wanting to impose yourself and your own views and how you understand the world within the organization in itself.
So, you need to devoid yourself of all things that is bias and can influence your support, because no leader is a leader without followers. You don’t want to sort of push people away because of your very strong views on certain things. You need to be open to that.
And it was a long process for me, because if I look back at the person I was 10 years ago, which wasn’t a long time ago, but I feel that it was quite a long journey already, I am no longer that person. I am much more open. I think my experiences, mostly my defeats and most of the battles that I’ve lost — and I’ve lost more battles than anything else — that influenced the person that I am today.
SONNIE: So, thank you so much for the positive steps you’ve taken to transform lives and change the way of life when it comes to women in leadership and your struggle for that. And it’s something that is not only for South Africa; it’s all over Africa. And we are all with you.
What advice can you give to YALI Network members out there when it comes to those who actually want to bring about positive change within their communities? What can you say to them? What are those things they need to focus on? There are many young leaders with great ideas who are part of this YALI Network and who really, really want to learn more from you, so what can you say to them?
MELENE: If I look at my own experience, the first thing that I did was look for people that shared my vision. And my team today are people that I knew from university, unlikely candidates, people that I didn’t work with, some people I worked with. And so I wanted to collaborate. I wanted to get a whole bunch of us together, everyone sharing the same vision and the same passion. And that’s very important, because if your team doesn’t share the same vision and passion as you do, there’s going to be serious issues. So get the right team.
Be open to collaborate with others. That is why we are there. If I can mention the experience that I had with the Obama Foundation last year, it was also leaders across Africa. We are a close-knitted family today, and that is exactly how I see the YALI Network operating as well.
I have a sister in Liberia now, I have a brother in DRC now, all of us doing the same work. Why can’t I go there and do voluntary work? Why can’t my brother from Congo come to South Africa and share his expertise? Collaborating on projects together? Applying for grant funding together?
Africa — and that’s what I realize — all have the same issues. Many countries in Africa, we have the same issues. We are not elite in our own little space. The issue that is facing South Africa is facing Liberia is facing Angola and Botswana, everywhere. There’s gonna be many challenges, so they need to have substance. If you want to call yourself an expert on a particular topic or you want to do work in a particular area, you need to be educated, you need to know enough on the issue that you’re working on to become an expert. How else are people going to respect you? How else are people going to listen to you? How else are you going to get followers?
So read up as much as you possibly can on the work that you’re doing, because I tell you now, once you get on a platform and there’s more people listening to you, we don’t want you to be exposed for what you are not. You need to know your subject area very, very well.
Be passionate. It’s not always about the money, because the biggest issue that I think I have with a lot of young leaders or YALI young leaders in Africa is that they always have this thing of “Where’s the money?” “We need money to do this.” I understand that we need money to do this, but there are many other ways in which we can sort of fundraise or — we don’t always have to look at the government for funding. There are business, there are networks across the world that can invest in the work that you do. But don’t let that be an obstacle. You know, the passion should speak for itself.
There was a long time that I’m going to tell you now that I invested my own money in my work, money that I saved, because I believe in it. And if I don’t invest in my own vision, why would someone else invest in my dream if I don’t invest in it myself? So it’s really about being a self-starter.
When sort of everything looks dark and depressing, what are you going to do to turn that around? The situation is never going to be a favorable one, but you can make it favorable, and it will take time, so be patient. It’s a beautiful journey that evolves. It changes.
The deeper you go, the more intense, the more depth you find within the work that you do. And I think for me that was the case. I started off with human rights education, and look where I am now — leading an apolitical movement that has the potential of becoming political in the next 10 years, because what we do is we don’t exclude women based on any basis — religion, culture. But it has the potential to grow exponentially, even when I am not there. And I won’t be there forever, and I want people obviously to follow me when I leave and take over the reins and just carry the movement forward.
MELENE: So besides us being able to collaborate and working on amazing projects together and really making a bigger impact on the African continent than in our own countries, we are each other’s biggest support, especially in difficult times, not only the good times, because the kind of work that we do goes against the grain of what many of our governments do not want to see happen. And so as young leaders, we also need to understand that we are a network, a support, an advisory network for one another. So if you want advice on a particular thing that you think I have the expertise on, you should be able to be free to email me or call me and let’s have a discussion about it. How can I advise you better? That is how I see this YALI Network really working together, you know. Collaborating, supporting, advising each other until we reach our goals.
You know, Sonnie, there isn’t a magic formula for these things. But I would say as a very, very entry-level advice piece, start with community forums. You don’t have to focus on women. But if there’s no community forums — because really what we want to do is create an active and vibrant and participatory citizenry. How do you do that? You can’t do it by only educating. You need to organize communities to action, because communities can be educated and not be organized, or be educated and not be inspired to actually move from being educated into action. So it will be your responsibility to create these community forums where you are — very small. You can start with 20, 30, 40, 50 people. It will automatically grow.
The second piece of advice: Listen to what the people want. Do not come with your views on how you think this forum should look or the kind of project they should do. Listen to what they want. The communities are more informed as to what they need than politicians or anyone else coming from the outside in to tell them what they need. So listen. Engage people. Find out what their passions are and what they’re willing to do and what they can do.
Because what we’ve learned with the Women Lead Movement was that women always wanted to be actively involved. They just didn’t know how to do it. They were sitting with the expertise at home. Some of them were retired, some of them really wanted to effect change. They just didn’t know how to come together.
SONNIE: So, Melene, can you, for women listening, our audience, right, those part of the YALI Network members, can you kindly say out your website so that we can also follow?
MELENE: No problem. It’s www.womenleadmovement.org. They can also follow us on Facebook, yes, under Women Lead Movement.
SONNIE: Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from the young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast. Join the YALI Network at yali.state.gov and be a part of something bigger.
Our theme music is “E Go Happen” by Grace Jerry and produced by the Presidential Precinct.
The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State, and it is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.