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Equality. Are we there yet? We asked 6 eco-warrior women

by | Aug 9, 2020

Sixty four years ago today, women staged one of the largest demonstrations in South Africa’s history: 20 000 women marched to Pretoria’s Union Buildings to present a petition to prime minister Johannes Gerhardus Strijdom to protest the apartheid pass laws. Six decades and the turn of a century later women still marching. We marching against gender-based violence, femicide, and more recently, climate change. To mark Women’s Day 2020, Twyg reached out to eco-warrior change-makers:

Zwelisha Giampietri

Zwelisha is a Durban-based freelance, multi-faceted creative with a technical background in multimedia design and working experience in the fashion and advertising industries. She recently left her media and design post at Amanda Laird Cherry to embark on a career as a freelance art director, designer and creative producer.

What is it like being a woman and playing in the creative industry? Empathy plays a vital role in general environmental and social consciousness, and that feminine energy inherently holds this feeling. We possess a really powerful ability to drive and adapt to change, which is what this space is all about.

Let’s talk about sustainability and environmental issues in your industry. The biggest challenge is that individuals tend to engage with the subject on a surface level. With regards to the fashion industry, over the last few years we have finally seen the subject brought into the foreground and there is pressure being applied to larger commercial businesses to evolve more responsibly and to consider their full impact; from the soil to their workers, to the customer’s closet and the afterlife of the garment. As consumers we need to shift our priorities. Businesses will adjust according to our demand.

How are environmentalism, feminism and social justice linked? Social justice and feminism are just as critical as environmentalism and we will all be in a better place if the demands of all of these movements are met. There are countless people living in violent situations of extreme poverty or unsafe or inhospitable conditions, who do not have the power, access or the means to change their habits and lifestyles. Environmental degradation and climate change affect everyone, but more so the poor and marginalised.

What do you think the women who marched on 9 August 1956 would think of women’s lives today? I cannot be sure, but I do think that they would feel pride in the fact that we are enjoying a level of freedom that was previously not enjoyed all women in this country. Our generation can be thankful for that – but it is also simultaneously a very dark time for any feminine-identifying individual.

Who is your female role model? My mom, Maria Cristina Giampietri. She raised me to think independently and inherited her environmental consciousness. She was living and educating me about zero-waste before it was on the agenda in school curricula or in popular media, and I am grateful for that. She is also incredibly stylish!

What advice do you have for young girls? No matter what your background is or where you are from, it’s cool to be yourself and important to know yourself. Don’t let others sway you from this.

 

Aaniyah Omardien

Aaniyah is an environmental conservationist and the founder and a director of The Beach Co-op, a Cape Town-based non-profit organisation which seeks to urgently protect, restore and regenerate the integrity of ocean ecosystems and reconnect people and nature.

What is it like being a woman and playing in conservation? There are many women in the environmental sector, but like in other sectors, we are under-represented in the most senior positions. It becomes tricky to negotiate and be taken seriously because your input can goes unheard, is dismissed or downplayed.

What are the challenges you face when addressing sustainability and the environmental issues? One of our biggest challenges is working with business and industry, to bolster their commitment to drive change beyond brand image and marketing opportunities. We often start working with them for a Dirty Dozen ™ beach cleanup, but we make it clear that we would like this to be the start of our journey and that we would like to understand their business and sustainability goals more clearly so that we can assist them in achieving these were possible. Interestingly, business and industry are realising that they need to contribute and play a significant role in building a healthy society. But would like to see more collaboration within and between communities, government and industries to address our environmental crisis.

How are environmentalism, feminism and social justice linked? They are inextricably linked! I have struggled with being tagged as an ‘environmentalist’ because it does not capture the social justice and human rights issues that are mostly sidelined in traditional conservation and environmental practices. As intersectional environmentalists, we work in spaces where environmental, economic and social justice issues meet. For example, we work with government and business to improve access for all to public spaces in nature; and share messages about marine biodiversity through different media such as mainstream media and graffiti art. We work with lots of different groups, particularly those who are normally excluded, to jointly imagine and drive an economy that is fair for everyone.

What do you think the protesters who marched on 9 August 1956 would think of women’s lives today? It is tough to be positive in response to this question in light of how many women in South Africa are being killed and raped, and who live in fear. Yet there are more and more women empowering ourselves, being heard, and working hard to fight for equal rights.

Who is your role model? My latest girl crush is Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a black marine biologist. I love the way she writes, talks and lives as an intersectional environmentalist. I cannot wait to get a copy of her latest book All We Can Save, an anthology of wisdom from women climate leaders, including essays, poems and art by 60 contributors.

  • For information on The Beach Co-op click here (Image by Verity FitzGerald.)
  • Follow The Beach Co-op on Instagram

Mapitso Thaisi

Mapitso is a shweshwe-inspired swimwear and activewear designer.

What is it like being a woman in fashion? It’s amazing to know that I am living my wildest dreams and also making a valuable difference with the work I create, but it can overwhelming too.

Let’s talk about sustainability and environmental issues in your industry.  It’s a challenge to find the right people to produce the quality of product that I want to sell. It’s also really difficult to monitor and regulate how manufacturers dispose of leftover materials. I have had to inform them to return leftover fabric, which I then use. I am noticing the rise in more limited edition products ranges, which puts more pressure on designers to produce high quality products in less quantities. This is good for the environment and more profitable for designers.

How are environmentalism, feminism and social justice linked? At the heart of these movements is a call be conscious of hegemonic practices and how we live our lives. Ultimately we need to start viewing what we do through a holistic lens and ask ourselves whether what we do benefits or harms the environment, whether it uplifts women and whether there is common good for all. If we start living this way, we bring in marginalised voices and start being more conscious of certain issues that may be overlooked daily. Race comes into all of these factors. We are all operating in different intersectional frames of reference everyday and it’s up to us to define what those factors are and how they limit or benefit us and the environment.

What do you think the women who marched on 9 August 1956 would think of women’s lives today? To a large extent a lot has been achieved as a result of that women’s march in 1956. More women work, own businesses and to take up leadership roles in society. Today women in South Africa can choose to be whatever they want to be. However, we have to acknowledge that due to gender-based violence, women are not free in their own households or on our streets.

Who is your female role model?  My mother.

What do you wish you’d known as a little girl? Growing up comes with a lot of freedom, but it is really not all that glamorous and there is never really an end to it or a title to it, you just have to make a conscious effort everyday to do your best and be good to yourself.

  • For more information on ShweShwekini click here
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Harriet Matjila

Established in 2009 by mother-daughter duo, Harriet Matjila and Anna Hartebeest are the ‘women on the move’ behind Makhabisi Recycling & Trading, which is on the east of Johannesburg. This 100% black female-owned company, collects paper, cardboard boxes, bottles, plastics, cans and metal. Here, Harriet answers our questions.

What is it like being a woman in the recycling industry? Because we’re women, people are curious and skeptical about what we do. They believe it’s only men who can lead successfully in this field. We have to stand our ground. As women we have to have powerful voices so that our strength is heard and realised.

What are the biggest challenges you face when addressing sustainability and the environmental issues? Our project is a 100% black female-owned entity based in the East of Johannesburg. Currently, we have created 52 jobs, 29 female and 23 male whereby 38 is youth. With the few resource we have, we strive to empower the youth and women working with us. Over 300 hundred informal jobs have been created through this project as “trolley-preneurs” come to our site to weigh their recyclables, in return for a small token which enable them to maintain their livelihood. Many people still don’t understand the importance of recycling. Or that our carbon footprint must be minimised, I’ve seen how people worldwide promote recycling and all other energy-savvy strategies.
Our people slowly adjust to this reality. I wish to see today’s youth more involved in opportunities towards the betterment of our society because they are the future.

How are environmentalism, feminism and social justice linked? Environmental justice is social justice. We need to protect vulnerable communities alongside the environment. For us to try and save this world, we have to start at home and love those nearest and closest to you and teach them the value of our planet and then make the changes, small and big, to protect this place called home. I believe that if we build a society honouring the earth, we build a society which is sustainable and has the capacity to support all life forms. Let us be the ancestors our descendants thank.

What do you think the women who marched on 9 August 1956 would think of women’s lives today? Those were strong women who stood their grounds. They held the knife on the sharp side so that women could reap the fruits out of their struggles. Women are phenomenal beings. On the other side, I think they would be very disappointed because of the current pandemic of gender-based violence. Their hardship went down the drain as men are killing women and children on a daily basis. It is absurd how those men forget that they too were brought up by women, to become such stereotypes and forget the struggle our mothers had to go through to get this country where it is today.

Who is your female role model? My mom – Anna Hartebeest founder and director of Makhabsi Recycling. She’s not just my business partner but my best friend and mentor. She’s a lioness, a virtuous woman. I am humbly but gracefully walking in her footsteps.

What advice do you have for young girls ? Young lady: Find that hidden gift you were born holding in your hands because you were born to strive. You are a star and a child of the universe.

  • For more information on Makhabisi Recycling & Trading click here
  • Follow Makhabisi Recycling & Trading on Instagram

Nonhlanhla Joye

KwaZulu-Natal-based Nonhlanhla Joye is a farmer, a social entrepreneur and the founder of Umgibe Farming Organics and Training Institute and of Umgibe Stop Hidden Hunger Foundation. She is passionate about food security and community empowerment. In 2014 Nonhlanhla developed the Umgibe frugal climate smart growing system which brings farming solutions to social, societal and environmental issues. Umgibe’s main purpose is to train and promote farmer-owned, well-governed, well-managed, profitable and equitable cooperatives and small scale farmers.

What is it like being a woman in your industry? I feel privileged to be a part of the communities that strives to make important contributions towards increasing climate resilience food systems by adopting more climate-smart practices related to the livelihood and household day-to-day roles, improved seed banks, and better food processing practices.

What are the biggest challenges you face when addressing sustainability and the environmental issues?  My purpose in life is to stop hunger and to restore human dignity! Resistance is often the biggest challenge. It is hard to work with older people who are set in their ways, that is why I have chosen to work with children and youth. It’s good to see that communities become aware of he fragility of the food system in South Africa which is growing at an alarming speed.

How are environmentalism, feminism and social justice linked? It is my belief that feminism, social and environmental justice work are sensitive to power issues. Who causes pollution and who suffers from pollution? They focus on communities or groups rather than individuals; and tend to adopt a holistic approach to analysing and addressing problems and reforms. ‘Environmental justice’ includes all aspects of social justice – although sometimes social and environmental goals may be in conflict.

What do you think the women who marched on 9 August 1956 would think of women’s lives today? I cannot answer for them but I think looking back, I would think we’ve achieved 75% of what they protested and hoped for. I think they would be proud of the achievements and the strides that have been made by women in sectors that were only preserved for men. However I also think some would turn in their graves realising that some of us have turned the same rights they fought for to rights without accountability.

Who is your female role model? My mother is my role model, she kept me grounded, she instilled in me a spirit of resilience and faith.

What do you wish you’d known as a little girl growing up? I wish I had known that the soil holds the key to everything.

  • For more information on Umgibe click here
  • Follow Umgibe on Instagram

Juanita van der Merwe

Juanita van der Merwe is the founder and creative director of social impact business, Little Green Number focused on job creation, by upcycling old PVC billboards and turning them into reusable bags.

What is it like being a woman in fashion? The nature of a woman lends itself to the social entrepreneurship space. Many women know what it is like to not only care about the day-to-day financial needs of their families, but also the emotional and spiritual needs. Like with any social business, it’s not just about the profit, but also about the impact you have on the people and the planet.

What are the biggest challenges you face when addressing sustainability and the environmental issues? In recent years we have seen a slow but positive move towards more awareness around environmental issues. Corporates and individuals are more aware of their impact on the environment and we have seen this have a positive impact.  I would like to see people spend their money in our local economy, buying local, buying upcycled products and speaking positively about the local industry.

How are environmentalism, feminism and social justice linked? We need a fair, equal and sustainable world for everyone. Now, our planet is in danger and our women are in danger. Creating a world without hunger and poverty is not only my dream, but also the reason I wake up every morning.

What do you think the women who marched on 9 August 1956 would think of women’s lives today? Transformation on all fronts has been slow, but I do believe that women of today know they have a voice that deserves to be heard. I think their dream was for their fight to finish, not be ongoing, but in honour of their fight and sacrifice we will continue to take up space and stand for what is fair and just.

Who is your female role model? My mom. She is by far the strongest woman I know. She has risen above her circumstances and after years of choosing her family’s needs above her own, she has successfully managed a business and made a living for herself and others. She is wise and always my first phone call.

What do you wish you’d known as a little girl growing up? That there is always so much to learn, especially from failure.

  • For more information on Little Green Number click here
  • Follow Little Green Number on Instagram

 

 

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