“I think many expats share an overwhelming desire to give back to their host country. I know I did upon arriving in Johannesburg nearly three years ago. I believe we have a responsibility to give back to the country that is hosting us and, if possible, to leave it better than how we found it. In Johannesburg, the opportunity to give back is easy because the need is so incredibly overwhelming. The challenge is to figure out where to give your time and talents and how to maximise your impact in the short amount of time you have in this home away from home.
Upon arriving I dove into it! I was cleaning out my closets weekly, giving away toys my kids may (or may not) have been tired of playing with and donating them to any cause that tugged at my heartstrings. And let’s be honest, they all did. I quickly signed up to volunteer at a local preschool in the township of Kya Sands and began doing puzzles weekly with the children. On paper, I was an expat rock star, but in reality I was failing the children I was supposed to be helping and myself. Volunteering eventually became a box to check weekly versus a passion, and while I was physically with the kids each week I wasn’t emotionally present. While some volunteers are completely altruistic, I am not. I wanted to find a cause and project that impacted me as much as I impacted it.
I finished out the year at my preschool, and as the kids graduated, so did I. I told myself to take my time to find a cause that I was truly passionate about so that volunteering wouldn’t feel like an obligation, but a privilege. Shortly thereafter I was introduced to Lawyers against Abuse (LvA), a non-profit organisation that provides free legal services and trauma counselling to victims of gender-based violence (GBV).
If you’ve lived in South Africa for any amount of time, you know that GBV is endemic, but you might not fully comprehend the magnitude of this crisis. Outside of a war zone, South Africa has the highest rates of violence against women in the world. In Diepsloot, the informal settlement North of Johannesburg where LvA is based, prevalence rates of GBV are doubled.
Despite these horrifying realities, LvA is the only organisation of its kind in Diepsloot. While many organisations are engaging in high-level advocacy, impact litigation, or prevention work, few provide direct services to victims. And none of them are in Diepsloot, where the need is arguably greatest.
I didn’t know any of this before starting with LvA, and after learning of the reality, I knew I wanted to be part of their team. What impresses me about the people at LvA is that they are doing the real dirty work. They are in the trenches daily, supporting victims – whether it’s helping them fill out a protection order against their abuser, accompanying them to court as they testify or leading them through therapy so they can begin to heal from the trauma they’ve endured.
While other organisations are talking about the problem, the LvA team are fixing it. They are working directly with the police and courts to make sure those in power are held accountable. They are in the community daily, educating people about their rights and advocating for remedies to GBV. They are inspiring women to speak out against their abusers and to fight for justice. In short, they are lifelines to this vulnerable population and I am honoured to be a part of it.
Though I am not a lawyer or a therapist, I found a way to support the organisation and the women it serves with the talents I have. In my past life, I was the vice president of a PR and marketing firm that serviced a bevvy of clients and trades, but my passion was always the non-profit clients. For non-profits, like LvA, the struggle is always funding, but if no one knows about the organisation then no one will support it. By sharing LvA’s story and mission, I am helping raise the necessary funds for them to continue the critical work they do in the community.
It’s been over six months since I started at LvA and it never feels like I’m checking a box. In fact, I lie in bed at night and wonder how I can do more for the organisation. Even though I don’t get a paycheque, I feel immense pride in the work I do and it is incredibly rewarding. Working for LvA has been one of the most humbling and inspiring parts of my expat experience.”