SA Jewish women changing the world in revolutionary ways

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To commemorate Women’s Day on 9 August, the SA Jewish Report sought South African Jewish women who are leaders in their fields, and are making a real difference to the world. There are many and – while this is not a finite list – these women are a force to be reckoned with.
by TALI FEINBERG | Aug 10, 2018

Professor Valerie Mizrahi: Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine

Professor Valerie Mizrahi is working to eradicate tuberculosis (TB) from South Africa, and around the globe. Her research aims to understand the organism itself, and in so doing, find new tools to control and kill it.

“Having an understanding of the characteristics of TB is central to any effort to develop new therapy. Our work has real application for TB drug discovery,” she says.

In 2007, she received the Order of the Mapungubwe (silver) from the President in recognition of her contributions to biochemistry, molecular biology, and tuberculosis research in South Africa.

She is a mentor and educator dedicated to training the next generation of scientists. She has trained more than 40 postgraduate students, and the majority of her trainees have remained involved in biomedical research in South Africa and abroad.

Despite the fact that her work exposes her to the toughest challenges in our society, she says she feels inspired every day. “There is so much talent, energy, and good work being done. It’s easy to become negative, but most problems are not unique to South Africa. I am positive and optimistic.”

Bonita Meyersfeld, associate professor of law at the University of the Witwatersrand

Professor Bonita Meyersfeld uses the law to empower communities and individuals whose human rights have been violated.

Her work extends from advising members of Parliament in the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa, to working with and litigating against corporate actors who violate human rights. Her aim is to provide hands-on support for victims of gender-based violence.

Her research is revolutionary in many ways. She has developed a model for the effective representation of victims and survivors of gender-based violence that has had a positive impact on hundreds of women and children. Through her efforts, the human-rights responsibilities of economic powers in South Africa is being addressed.

Prior to working in South Africa, Meyersfeld was a legal advisor to the House of Lords in the UK, and gender consultant to the International Centre for Transitional Justice in New York.

Meyersfeld feels it is a positive and powerful time to be in South Africa: “When our democratic structures were tested by the [Jacob] Zuma regime, they held firmly. This is a huge success, and demonstrates the extraordinary mettle of our Constitution.”

Carolyn Raphaely: senior journalist, Wits Justice Project

“Madiba once said, ‘No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones,’” says Carolyn Raphaely, who investigates miscarriages of justice and human rights abuses in our criminal justice system.

“In South Africa, there are no statistics regarding the scale of the wrongful conviction problem, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s widespread. There is no other South African organisation focused on wrongful convictions, or any other project using the techniques of investigative journalism to bring about change in the criminal justice system,” she says. “My aim is to use the power of the media to obtain justice when the justice system has failed to do so.”

It's not without its challenges: “I’m not very good at boundaries, and inmates phone me at all hours. In the face of overwhelming demand for the project’s services, I often lie awake worrying about the people I feel I’ve let down, or am unable to help.”

Her work as a journalist has taught her that everyone has a story. “For example, there’s inevitably a reason why people commit crime. Often, it’s related to early childhood trauma and socio-economic conditions. South Africans need to stop dehumanising the other, and make an effort to listen to each other’s stories more carefully. I’ve learnt some of my greatest life-lessons from people behind bars who are generally regarded as the dregs of society.

“We clearly have a lot of work to do. Even so, I love South Africa and have no desire to live anywhere else. We’re going through a very difficult period, but the challenges we’re facing are what makes living here so exciting. Change is never easy.”

Miriam Hartmann: public health researcher, RTI International

Miriam Hartmann focuses on HIV prevention through innovative solutions, and she has created several global resources to reduce violence against women – one of which was co-published with the World Health Organization.

Her research has led to the development of a counselling intervention called Charisma to improve women’s ability to use new HIV prevention products safely. This includes pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP), which is when people at very high risk take HIV medication daily to lower their chances of getting infected.

“PrEP offers an opportunity to reduce HIV transmission, and combined with efforts that focus on relationships and violence, we have the opportunity to set best practice for other countries,” says Hartmann.

Her goal is to create a society that is healthy and equitable. “It’s a big goal, but we can all contribute to it, which should make it possible. I also believe that as a population that has been persecuted, Jews have the responsibility to speak up for other persecuted people in South Africa and beyond.”

Michelle Lissoos: Director of Think Ahead/iSchoolAfrica

Michelle Lissoos is teaching disadvantaged pupils across South Africa to use iPads, to code, and get the best education possible using technology, in turn preparing them to thrive in today’s digital world.

“We implement technology solutions in public and private schools, and partner the government and corporates. For example, we have a partnership with the Department of Rural Development and Land Reform whereby we have rolled out mobile iPad labs and teacher training to 100 rural schools. The iSchoolAfrica Inclusion Programme supports children with special needs by empowering them with technology,” says Lissoos.

Her ultimate goal is to ensure that as many South African teachers and students as possible have the opportunity to participate in 21st century education so that they gain the skills to be successful and find their potential and passion.

She believes that South African Jewish women “have so much to give our community, and are capable of playing a meaningful role in moving South Africa forward. As a community, we need to be more united in our efforts, and supportive of each other. The combined contribution and impact of the Jewish community to our country is considerable.”

Jessica Horler: Director of Alacrity Development

Jessica Horler is working to ensure that nongovernmental organisations and the government implement social services and programmes that are proven to work. As a result, disadvantaged communities can benefit from these interventions, and social transformation becomes viable as opposed to a pipe dream.

“We conduct evaluations of their work, help them to improve their interventions, and learn how to serve their communities better,” says Horler.

This work is unique and important, because the monitoring and evaluation industry is still quite new in South Africa, and many organisations are unaware how critical it is to track and evaluate their progress in achieving social change.

Horler believes that, “Most Jewish women are very lucky to belong to a privileged community that prioritises education. We should use our education and privilege to uplift and empower others. South Africa has a fortune of young people who are highly intelligent, compassionate, innovative, and dynamic. If we work together to create social change under such leadership, our future is bright!”

Andrea Bolnick: founder of Ikhayalami

Andrea Bolnick is working to address one of the biggest challenges in South Africa: townships and informal settlements.

“I view informal settlements as emergencies about to happen in the form of fire, floods, or evictions, or the suffering in the aftermath of such disasters,” she says. “I also acknowledge that informal settlements are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and contain some innovative adaptations.”

With this in mind, Ikhayalami focuses on the development of affordable technical solutions for the upgrading of informal settlements with the support of funding from the South African government. It was created in response to the unsustainable and painstakingly slow approaches in place to deal with informal settlements.

“The work acknowledges the innovation that emerges from the harsh conditions of poverty. For example, the shack upgrade I have designed is based on the concept of a shack, but I use very strong sheeting with limited use of wood to make an improved shelter that is easy to transport, simple to build, is fire and flood resistant, and affordable,” she says.

Another innovation is re-blocking – the reconfiguration of informal settlements so that the state can provide basic services due to easier access. “All the work that I do is located deeply within organised poor communities, so that the community takes ownership of the intervention, and works with us as partners.”

She has also pioneered a double story shack upgrading project called Empowershack, which has been nominated for a Royal Institute of Architecture Prize.

Lauren Gillis: Founder of Relate

Relate, a 100% not-for-profit social enterprise, creates earning opportunities for unskilled, unemployed, and unemployable people, and funds other charities through the sale of its simple, handmade bracelets.

It is revolutionary in that it partners with almost every major corporate and retailer in South Africa, and it is not a charity, but an empowerment and employment initiative. “In eight years, we have raised almost R55 million through the sale of more than 3 million bracelets. Relate moves away from the traditional fundraising model, whereby needy charities doing amazing work constantly turn to corporates and wealthy individuals for donations.

“It is a creative way to connect people. In a country with such a high unemployment rate, every Relate bracelet not only funds a cause, but also creates a job for those young and old unemployable people who need it most. We are proud to have made a positive impact on thousands of lives.”

Gillis’ ultimate goal is to give unemployed people dignity and hope, and to give wearers the opportunity to be part of a solution. She would like to get every employed/tax-paying individual in South Africa who is privileged to have a job, to buy one Relate bracelet a year. “We could raise a quarter of a billion rand annually, and spend it in the most accountable and transparent way to create earning opportunities and fund other non-profits.” She also aims to become a recognised and trusted global brand.

She believes all Jewish women have the responsibility and ability to be agents of social change, not only in the Jewish community, but in the community at large. “We are taught about tikkun olam and derech eretz, and we can and often do make a significant difference to the lives of those less fortunate.”


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