Social employment: The catalyst to sustainable socio-economic empowerment

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By Bongani Ndlovu, SEF Project Manager at Hlanganisa Community Fund for Social and Gender Justice

South Africa is faced with many social ills that threaten the fabric of society.

Many civil society organisations are engaged in various activities aimed at addressing these social challenges. These are often community volunteers who sacrifice their time and other resources in pursuit of social good. In recent years, the concepts of social employment and social investments have taken ground. At their core, is the use of financial and human capital to address social problems for public good.

Social employment

The economic and social benefits of social employment are profound. Social employment programmes aim to provide work and capacity enhancement opportunities in the context of high unemployment levels and for individuals who face barriers to employment, such as low-skilled black women and women with disabilities.

Marginalised women have historically encountered obstacles in the job market due to discrimination and systemic inequalities. Social employment initiatives help address these barriers, offering them a chance to improve their economic and social standing.

Hlanganisa is one of 28 civil society organisations part of the Social Employment Fund (SEF), a programme of the Presidential Employment Stimulus, aimed at creating work for common good. The programme, managed through the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), seeks to utilise direct public investment to support employment opportunities, counteract job losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, and create opportunities for sustainable economic growth and renewal.

As part of this initiative, Hlanganisa, in collaboration with 38 community advice offices across 10 districts in four provinces is implementing the Sisterhood Advocates Project. The project seeks to strengthen support for survivors of gender-based violence through the provision of community-based paralegal services and psychosocial support. The project has successfully trained over 3 000 women as community-based paralegals specialising in sexual and gender-based violence (GBV). Over 98% of them took on employment providing them with access to a regular income and economic stability.

Improved human capital

There are several notable benefits of this employment opportunity for these women.  The training has built their capacity and skills base, giving them an opportunity to gain meaningful experience, thus making them more employable. Upon recruitment, the women undergo training in community-based paralegal work, with a particular focus on GBV and relevant legislation such as the Domestic Violence Act and Sexual Offenses Amendment Act. This equips them with the necessary knowledge and skills to offer legal advice to survivors of sexual and GBV.

Economic benefits

In addition, the initiative has provided women stable employment, paying a guaranteed living wage.  For many women who find themselves trapped in low-paying and insecure jobs that offer no opportunities for growth, this has boosted their self-esteem and bolstered their confidence. Many of these women report having a renewed sense of worthiness and an increased ability to assert themselves.

The economic benefits have also had several trickle-down effects. Regular income has led to greater economic and social well-being, benefiting not only the individual women and their families but also the entire community by reducing poverty and enhancing overall economic well-being. This has ultimately given them dignity and promoted agency in their lives. In addition to this, the increased net income in these small communities has significantly contributed to the local economy. For example, over R7 million has been channelled into Capricorn District since August 2022.

Social benefits

The programme has had other social benefits on women’s lives. The resultant economic independence has resulted in less GBV, an important spin off from the project. In the context of high levels of sexual and GBV, this has a knock on effect on women’s mental health and productivity. When women have their own source of income, they are less likely to remain in abusive relationships, as they are better equipped to leave and support themselves and their families.

Collective social good

Because the employment is in pursuit of social good, there has been additional social benefits. The first 12 months of the project saw a 265.3% increased reach and support to survivors of GBV through paralegal services and psychosocial support. This was particularly important for women on the margins such as elderly women and women with a disability. These women would ordinarily not be able to access service points. Having these community-based paralegals within their communities has meant that the services are taken to the people. The Sisterhood Advocates Project has also seen better co-ordination at local level amongst various services such as police, social workers, clinics, home affairs departments etc. This has resulted in improved outcomes for survivors of GBV including an increase in number of cases opened, prosecuted and convictions secured.

The project has also provided a safety net for women, with increased social networks, social capital and safe spaces where women can connect with others who may be experiencing similar situations. These spaces foster a sense of solidarity, provide emotional support, and are crucial for survivors of GBV.

An interesting spin off from the project has been increased entrepreneurship opportunities through stokvels and using the guaranteed wages as income for seed funding for their own business ideas. A group of women in Lejweleputswa District bought catering equipment for hire.

The value of partnerships

Partnerships between government agencies, civil society and private sector entities are vital for the success of social employment initiatives. These collaborations can leverage resources to maximise impact and create sustainable change. By working together, stakeholders can develop innovative solutions, share best practices, and advocate for supportive policies and regulations.

In conclusion, social employment programmes such as the Sisterhood Advocates Project have immense potential to empower marginalised women, reduce GBV, and promote gender equality. Women gain access to stable employment, skills training, and supportive services that enhance their economic independence and overall well-being. It is crucial to continue investing in and expanding social employment initiatives, ensuring they are inclusive and tailored to specific needs. By doing so, we can contribute to building a more inclusive and equitable society, where women have equal opportunities for economic empowerment and can live free from violence and discrimination.