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Women's education and empowerment at heart

According to UNICEF, 129 million girls are out of school around the world. The reasons for this situation vary from country to country but there is one thing that studies have consistently shown: when women are educated, their country benefits from it. As the founder of 18twenty8 Refiloe Seseane puts it: “as women, we cannot keep being put on the side-line as if we don’t exist or as if we don’t have value because we absolutely do.”

“When I turned 28, I decided to be the big sister I never had and help another 18 year old girl. I thought to myself: let me have at least one girl that I can help to get through university, have her fees paid and give her a sense of direction” tells Refiloe Seseane as she recalls how 18twenty8 – her organization that helps girls in South Africa to get an higher education – came about.

Back in 2008, Refiloe found herself at a crossroad in her life. She left her job as an investment analyst in a private bank in Cape Town and came back to her hometown Johannesburg. “I would wake up every day and tell myself: there’s got to be more to life! What am I doing here?” At that time, she started thinking about the ten year period (18 to 28 years old) of struggle to get into University. The difficulty came from financial reasons but also because she didn’t have a sense of direction and didn’t know what course to take. “There are times when things happen and they knock your confidence and self-esteem. In those times, having someone who is there to support you is so important” she says with a lot of emotion in her voice.

She first became a mentor for a few girls but rapidly, what started as a casual mentorship for a few girls, became an organization in 2011. The name of the organization – 18twenty8 – not only refers to Refiloe Seseane’s personal experience but also to the age group of their beneficiaries. For the founder, this period is critical in the life of a young woman because she makes a lot of decisions academically and personally.

The association has four main programs, one directed towards girls in grade 11 and 12 – namely life skills workshops – and three for university students. Life skills workshops happen in schools of disadvantaged communities in marginalized areas. The organization’s members speak to girls in their last years of high school about the importance of higher education for empowerment and independence, help them start their application to universities, expose them to diverse career paths and touch on other subjects such as gender-based violence and environmental issues.

“These girls usually come from homes where there is a lack of academic role models or mentors. Typically, they are the first in their family to finish high school, let alone even start thinking about going to university” highlights the founder. Although the organization’s main focus is higher education, Refiloe also wants to empower young women in general.

For example, Salie Molefe, a student at the International Hotel School and one of 18twenty8’s beneficiary, was raised by a single mother who works multiple jobs to take care of her children. “I’m part of the many South African girls who live in townships with their single mothers and in houses that are not big enough for the amount of people that actually live in them. I come from a township where young girls fall pregnant by the age of 13, they are abused by the men they grew up calling uncles, and they abuse substances and alcohol by the age of 12. They often don’t finish school and drop out of school because they need to take care of their children. By the age of 20 most girls already have four children, no job, no husband, no education and no future” she describes.

For Salie, the opportunity given to her by the organization is a blessing because she knows how prevalent gender-based violence on women and children is in South Africa. “It's scary because nothing is happening to keep these women and children safe. We are always asking ourselves: Am I next? Thanks to 18twenty8, my future looks clearer. They have given me an opportunity that many people pray for every night” she adds.

18twenty8 organizes litter pickups in high schools to raise awareness about environmental issues

“We give them practical tools to deal with issues around gender violence such as self-defence classes or teach them where to go to get help when they are facing such issues in their community. We also talk about environmental issues so the girls can start thinking about the earth as a friend and a place to preserve and respect. We do litter pickups at the school, teach them about recycling and invite people who work in conservation or climatologists to talk about what their work is about and share their knowledge. We expose them as well to a number of careers during professional development workshops where professionals from different sectors come and explain what their work is about” details Refiloe.

For the founder, the most important aspect of the life skills program is to ensure that when the program ends, the organization has installed a sense of peer empowerment and that the older girls in the school start influencing the younger ones.

The other three programs offered by 18twenty8 focus on university students through the financial assistance program, the big sister network and the leadership camp.

Higher education is expensive in many parts of the world, including South Africa. The organization’s role is to find a number of donors – mostly in South Africa, the UK and the USA – to fundraise and pay all the students’ fees and costs associated with getting their degree and, thus relieve them of their worries concerning finances.

“There are girls who are very competent academically but, because of financial constraints, struggle to or cannot finish their degree. There are also girls who got into university in the first place but the costs are so high that they cannot perform well because they have to focus on making money instead of studying. And others who pick up student loans to pay for their education but once they have graduated, their credit record prevents them to get the job they studied for” explains Refiloe Seseane.

It is the case of Snqobile Gumbi, a student at the University of South Africa. The organization reached out to her as she started her first year. “The balance for my fees was required in order for me to continue my studies and commence with my second semester modules. And I remember asking myself: what was I thinking when I registered to study without financial aid? I took a leap of faith and I got lucky” she tells.

Mentorship is a crucial part of 18twenty8's work

On top of the financial aid the students receive, the big sister network gives them social support through mentorship. The organization matches the girls with someone who regularly takes time to call, meet or send them text messages to check on them. The big sister is usually a woman who works in the career the girls are aspiring to go to. This specificity – that sets 18twenty8 apart from other bursary organizations – was unexpected for Snqobile. “I didn't know what to expect from them and I was really touched by the way they just checked in on me, especially through my big sister mentor. The organization has shown me that there are generous people who are genuinely willing to assist in making another's dream come true” she explains.

The third program offered by the organization is the leadership camp and its purpose is to bring together girls from different universities across South Africa. During that weekend, the 18twenty8 team’s goal is to unlock leadership potential of the young women and help them see that they have the agency to fix whatever issues they are facing.

“Often these young women feel like they are not born leaders and thus it’s not their place to speak about whatever they want. The leadership camp is a place where they are compelled to speak up and address the issues they have. And when we galvanize a group of girls over the weekend, they will walk away as sisters and a lot of friendships will be formed. They also realize that whatever issues they are facing, it is not unique to them, someone is going through something similar” adds the founder.

The leadership camp helps create friendships and a strong network

“I would define the organization as a big sisterhood. It feels really good to know that you can talk to Refiloe or anyone in the organization about anything besides academic needs” expresses Minenhle Mthembu, a student at the University of Pretoria. Although she has been a beneficiary of other bursaries in the past, her experience with 18twenty8 is very different. “You are not just a beneficiary or another girl who needs help, you are a human being. In the future, I would love to be a sponsor as well and help girls too because I would like to see more girls get the opportunities that I have” she continues.

For Refiloe Seseane, higher education for women is not only important because it uplifts women but is also necessary to address systemic issues that come from patriarchy in South Africa. According to the department of statistics in South Africa, 42,1% of all households were headed by women in 2021, and female-headed households were most common in rural areas (47,7%).

“What happens when a woman has to spend more time at work because she has to put food on the table and provide for her children is that there tends to be some areas of neglect in terms of installing the importance of education in children’s minds. And what we know is that, if a woman is better qualified, she has more chances of having a better paying job. We hear the stories that most millionaires are university drop-outs but these people are outliers. Most people would need the backup of a university degree to be able to get into a certain level of employment. And better educated women make better decisions in terms of their financial planning, of their own health especially reproductive and mental health but also for the household in general which is vital for a society to function well. We certainly wouldn’t have received such an interest in our organization if there wasn’t a major need” explains the founder.

Although the organization is already making an impact, Refiloe Seseane aspires to make 18twenty8 a national organization. So far, her work focuses mainly in the province of Gauteng, specifically in Johannesburg. She also encourages women and men in South Africa to come together with a sense of purpose and direction. “As women we cannot keep being put on the side-line as if we don’t exist or as if we don’t have value because we absolutely do” she concludes.

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