Meet Gretchen Ki Steidle
In 2004, shortly after completing my MBA, I traveled to South Africa to conduct research on the HIV/AIDS crisis to explore how best to contribute to a solution. I crisscrossed the country meeting with business executives, clinics and academic experts, until one day I was asked whether I’d taken any time to speak with the women in the townships, South Africa’s slums, where HIV and sexual violence were ravaging their lives. I hadn’t. I didn’t even know how to go about accessing a township. But I was eager to do so.
A week later, with the help of a friend and social entrepreneur in Cape Town, I found myself sitting in a tiny metal shack with an extraordinary woman named Zolecka Ntuli. Zolecka told me how she was compelled to act when a 12-year old neighborhood girl was raped by a group of young boys who thought it was their right to have sex with her. Zolecka was not formally educated, and at the time was unemployed and had no resources. But she found some loose change to buy some bread and she invited 15 women to come together to start a dialogue about the taboo issue of rape, which was now infiltrating the lives of children. She raised her own money by selling beadwork to put herself through counseling training. When she could, she would provide her meetings with food, which was sometimes the only meal her members got that day. She told us that many men think that women carry HIV, so when men get sick, they do not want a woman caring for them. Men also saw information from men as more credible. Thus, Zolecka had to find men willing to be trained as caregivers as well as educators. It was about six months later when I met her, and by that time she had been able to get 60 people together three days a week (including 15 men) to talk about how to solve the issue in their community.
What I had discovered in the grassroots societies of those most deeply suffering from the HIV/AIDS and sexual violence crises, was that the women already knew what they needed to do to protect themselves from rape and HIV. But in many cases, they did not have the economic freedom, sexual rights or personal voice to decide when, where, how and with whom to have sex safely. It was a woman’s powerlessness that struck me as the single largest obstacle in the fight to prevent the spread of HIV – that is, until a woman has the courage to step forward to address such issues head-on, like Zolecka Ntuli. I knew right then and there, that I wanted to dedicate my work towards helping courageous change leaders within these marginalized populations of women advance their own ideas for social change. Upon returning to the US, I founded Global Grassroots, which is dedicated to providing training, funding and advisory support for grassroots change agents, like Zolecka Ntuli, working to advance social justice for the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.
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