Foster builds a network of support

As a young woman finding her own way, Lesley Ann Foster started Masimanyane Women’s Rights International that enabled her to grow personally as she helped others. 

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Masimanyane Women’s Rights International executive director, Lesley Ann Foster, is on a mission to end violence against women. (Image: African Feminist Forum)

Yvonne Fontyn

On her first day at what was to become the Masimanyane Women’s Rights International, executive director Lesley Ann Foster says she sat in the empty building and said, “Now what?” She finally had the means to start a shelter to help the many desperate women she had come across in her work with a charity for street children, but she didn’t know where to start.

Her benefactor, businessman Reggie Naidoo, who had offered her his premises, told her: “Phone all the women you know; they will tell you what to do.” The women came, to help and to be trained as counsellors. “A friend who worked for Powa [People Opposing Women Abuse] came and 22 women were trained on how to counsel rape survivors,” she said on the phone from her headquarters in East London, on the beautiful Eastern Cape coastline.

That was 20 years ago. Today Masimanyane, funded partly by overseas donors and the Department of Social Development, employs 42 full-time staff, with 20 volunteers giving their time on a regular basis. Its 11 centres in Eastern Cape offer medical and legal services and 24-hour counselling, and Masimanyane collaborates with other organisations in South Africa such as the Nisaa Institute for Women’s Development, based in Lenasia, in southern Johannesburg.

International presence

Foster herself is a speaker on world platforms – in 2010, together with NGOs from the nine provinces, she compiled a nationwide report for the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and presented the report the following year in Geneva, Switzerland.

Working with Norwegian Church Aid, Foster has been instrumental in helping Iraqi women achieve their democratic rights, and in 2012 she took a group of South African activists to the United Nations’ General Assembly after she was invited to address delegates on the global increase in violence against women. She sits on the boards of several international organisations, including Amanitare, the African Partnership for the Sexual and Reproductive Rights of Women and Girls, which has members in 26 countries.

Working with women is what gets her up in the morning, says Foster. “I love working with women. What I am doing, I am passionate about… I am focused on bringing women from one point to another.”

About the first women she was able to assist at Masimanyane, she says: “I felt attached to them, and to the outcome, but I realised my role was to be a facilitator – to link them with opportunities, then let them take it and run with it.”

She loves nothing better than to hear that someone who had approached the centre had achieved her goal – like the woman who had no matric, could not speak English and lived in a rural area but wanted to become a social worker. She heard Foster speak on the radio and plucked up the courage to approach the University of Cape Town, which agreed to help her to do the course. “Now she is doing her honours.”

Setting a goal and slowly, step-by-step, achieving it is something to which Foster can relate. She was living with a violent partner and was harassed at work for being a whistle-blower when she had her “Aha” moment and realised where her purpose in life lay.

Helping street children

Her foray into the non-profit sector began when she returned to her home town of East London to spend time with her ailing father. “I had been offered a management position – it was a step up for me,” she says. “But the minute I arrived I felt something tugging at my heart – a feeling that there was something else to do.” At her church she heard about Daily Bread, a street children project, and soon she was helping with fund-raising and running its resource centre, collecting goods and distributing them to needy people. “I trained as a child care giver and was able to open 20 soup kitchens. From the funds we raised we were able to buy farms to house the children. In the seven years I was there we helped about 400 children. Those boys are young men now. I still have contact with them – I am granny to their children.”

Things went sour when a colleague told her she had found that funds had been misappropriated. Foster investigated, found evidence and took legal counsel from Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR). At this point her employers began to threaten her. On one particularly difficult day she escaped her office to LHR across the road and as she was talking to the counsellor “she said to me, you are working for disempowered people but here you are, disempowered,” Foster recalls.

Aha moment

“I had my ‘Aha’ moment,” says Foster. “I left the charity. But I fought the case to the end. I was harassed, I was stalked but I see it as a growing experience now because I gained strength within myself.”

Her mother, now 81 and still a committed community worker, advised her against pursuing the case. “I told her I was prepared to die for what I believed in. Once I had admitted to myself what the dangers were, I could go out fearlessly.”

It was at that stage that she decided to help women. “During my work with street children I encountered women with huge problems – they were enduring terrible abuse and violence, the children also. But there was no help for them. Lifeline worked in the white community but there were no shelters or counselling services for the black community.

“I was 32 and finding my own path – and I have always been of the mind that when I have an experience, I apply it to help other people.”

The desire to set up a resource to help the women from her community was born, but help did not come easily. Organisations such as the Black Sash did not have the means, she says, but “Ntombazana Botha of LHR helped, and she is the reason is I started Masimanyane”. Another friend, Mala Naidoo, mentioned that an overseas church had been training South African women as counsellors.

It was at that stage that Reggie Naidoo, who ran Ibec, a business to help marginalised entrepreneurs, offered Foster a double-storey house in which to start her centre. After the initial outreach efforts, she was able to fill the house gradually but surely as women arrived – referred by LHR and churches, and coming to train as volunteers.

“The name came from the women,” says Foster, looking back on 18 years of active service. “Masimanyane means ‘Let’s support each other’. The organisation’s growth was organic, it was democratic – and we have kept to that in the 18 years.”

Counsellor training

The first training done with Lifeline, a free phone counselling service, was “traumatic and powerful”, she says. “It was a meeting of different cultures, races and languages – we had interpreters. The fear the black women had of the white women…” It was clear there was a lot of work to be done. At the same time, she says, some psychologists in the city were sceptical: “They did not believe that victims could help each other. But we needed women to stand up.”

Foster has made it her business not only to help disempowered women at a practical level, but also to try to change the structures that underpin the inequalities in society. During the first weeks of the centre’s operation she documented the women who had been referred to Masimanyane by LHR. “There was no help for them.” She put a call through to the then minister of justice, Dullah Omar, who happened to be the friend of an uncle. “He sent Vusi Pikoli [then director-general]. He sat with me, discussing what to do. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang was deputy justice minister – she came too.

“We organised for a petition to demand more services for women. Seven months later we launched Masimanyane – Dullah Omar was the main speaker. It was the right time – 1995 – the time of the transition to a democracy.”

Foster was invited to join a committee drawing up the new Domestic Violence Act.

Turning point

In 1996, she went to the International Conference on Violence, Abuse and Women’s Citizenship in Brighton, in England – “a turning point”, she says. “I was mesmerised, learning about rape and other issues of violence against women in a global context.” Then came an invitation to attend talks on women’s leadership at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, in the United States. This is where she said she became aware of “women’s human rights. It changed my understanding.” It was exciting for this woman from South Africa to attend Rutgers’ Center for Women’s Global Leadership to undergo training with delegates from all over the world, she said. “It was amazing and it changed my organisation.”

While in Brighton, Foster had connected with a Norwegian NGO, the Norwegian Crisis Shelter Movement, which became Masimanyane’s first international partner. “This gave us a global view and platform. We continued to develop those links.” Foster also sits on the board of International Women’s Rights Action Watch, which is active in 122 countries.

Yet, despite these measures and those put in place by various governments, discrimination against women and violence against women are growing worldwide. Speaking last year on International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, Louise Arbour, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that to stem the increase of violence against women and girls, those committing the crimes must be prosecuted. “Most perpetrators of these crimes [enjoy] impunity,” she said.

“This impunity is built on a foundation of discrimination and inequality… Unless these inequalities are addressed, including in the economic and social spheres, the violence will persist.”

Foster concurs and says the reason for the violence remains that “women are not valued in society as much as men are. This discrimination fosters inequality and the inequality is expressed by some men as violence against women and girls. Patriarchy allows men to experience privilege in every area of their lives and the downside of this is that women are accorded a status lower than that of men.”

But she is not dispirited: “South Africa offers much hope and inspiration for women. Yes, we do have high levels of violence against women but we also have powerful programmes to protect women and to advance their human rights. We need to work on implementation of the existing laws and programmes. I have seen young women enter professions that have been closed to them. Our affirmative action programmes are amazing in putting women into leadership positions. There is much to celebrate and be proud of.”

Trends and developments offer hope, she says: “The work which is being done to eliminate violence against women in the country is powerful. It has drawn diverse groups of women together and they work on the issue collectively.”

It is not just in homes that changes are being made: “I am particularly proud of what Masimanyane Women’s Support Centre has achieved in getting women engaged with their local and provincial governments,” says Foster. “We have worked on strengthening state accountability and this is brilliant because the impact reaches all women in the country.”