“I am a woman. I am powerful, I am a role model, and I am intelligent. I have a heart of gold.” This is what one of the students of the Arrupe Women’s Skills Centre wrote when she was asked to define women.
She and ten other girls participate in Abbie Adeola’s hairdressing class at the Arrupe Women’s Skills Centre run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Johannesburg, South Africa. “I love my job,” explains Adeola, “I have empowered myself, now I empower other women. When they are educated, they go far.”
The Arrupe Women’s Skills Centre offers vocational training to refugees, asylum seekers, and local women. The beneficiaries can attend hairdressing, beauty, computer, and English classes. The same programs are offered at JRS’s Loyola Women’s Skills Centre, in Pretoria.
“The aim is to equip them with skills to become self-reliant and get employment,” states Tereda van Heerden, manager of both centres. Some participants then start their own businesses –which also creates new employment opportunities in the community.
Most of the students come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe, Nigeria, and Burundi. Xenophobia, racism, unemployment, exploitation, language barriers, lack of documents, sexual and gender-based violence, or raising children as a single mother are all difficulties faced by these women who have been forced to leave their home country behind.
Education is the first step for them to claim their rights as women and as integrated members in their host community.
“I spent three years without a job”, says Joy, a mother of five and a refugee from Nigeria. She has been living in South Africa for nine years, but she could never get a job. She was selling on the streets with her husband, but they could not afford the license. “It gets difficult to feed my children, pay rents, school fees. It is painful.” She decided to join JRS’s beauty classes to change her situation. “It is important to study, staying at home does not help.”
“I want to have my own place [to] do nails, massages, and make-up,” explains Vanessa. She used to be a receptionist for a hotel in South Africa, but she has not been able to find work for the past three years. The Arrupe Women’s Skills Centre gives her and her female peers a safe space to share and discuss the challenges they face.
As Thato Masuku, a social worker at Arrupe and Loyola, says: “We don’t just give them the skills. We give them empowerment tools: workshops, how to start a business, health, hygiene, group counseling in order to get educated from their peers… We help them to see who they really are and to be self-dependent.”