Female Empowerment: A Force to be Reckoned With, Everywhere

Guest post by Olivia McAuliffe, T’21 | DukeEngage Cape Town 2018


Wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo.


This saying, meaning ‘you strike the woman, you strike the rock,’ was popularized in South Africa during the Women’s March of 1956 and it stands true today.

I was fortunate enough to work under and walk alongside women who truly embody this adage during my time in Cape Town this past summer with DukeEngage. I interned at Sonke Gender Justice, a non-government organization that seeks to achieve gender equality, raise awareness about and mitigate the transmission of HIV and the effects of AIDS, and end gender-based violence through the collaboration of government entities, societal institutions, and South African citizens. There, I worked with women who cultivate resilience through each bout with sexual harassment or gender based discrimination and iterate resistance in every step they take and every ceiling they shatter.

Fredalene Booysen, the Community Education and Mobilization (CEM) Unit Manager and my supervisor at Sonke, epitomizes the notion of trial by fire. She came of age during the anti-apartheid movement, dodging rubber bullets and standing off against an oppressive government regime at the same point in life when I was acclimating to drinking coffee and living away from home for the first time. She has devoted her life to battling systemic inequality, and has the steely resolve to prove it.

Precilia Chuloi, a trainer with the Refugee Health and Rights Project within the CEM unit, was born in Cameroon and has lived in South Africa since 2004. Precilia began every week of work with a warm smile and a tight hug. She welcomed me into the Sonke community with open arms, and made it that much more difficult to leave at the close of the summer.

Freds and Precilia will never know just how much they taught me and shaped the trajectory of my life. What I value most from my Sonke experience was not learning how to effectively compile HIV testing data nor was it succinctly summarizing a staff meeting.

The moments that pushed me to grow most as an individual, as a woman, and as a feminist were those spent out of the office, beyond the cosmopolitan city limits, in the heart of South Africa.

Sonke-organized march in Gugulethu.

It was marching with Freds and Precilia through the streets of Cape Town, demanding a national strategic plan to end gender based violence as part of the Total Shutdown, an intersectional women’s march to the Parliament building in the center of the city. It was seeing Freds lead a crowd of community action members into a bustling neighborhood to distribute free condoms. It was watching Precilia connect with schoolgirls and ease them into mature yet incredibly important discussion topics like gender stereotypes, gender-based violence, and consent. Finally, and most importantly, it is knowing that both of these incredible women continue to wage the war against gender inequality every day both through their work and in raising their daughters to be strong and fearless just as they are.

An organization is only as strong as those who comprise it and what they can compel others to do. Fredalene and Precilia are two of the most resilient, awe-inspiring women I have ever met. Because of my time with them, I can feel the spark of the unbreakable female spirit ignited within me. Whether they know it or not, they push me to strive always for righteousness and stand for nothing short of justice.

Group photo of female DukeEngage Cape Town participants in Soweto.

I carried these values with me last week when I pounded on the doors of the Supreme Court in our nation’s capital, demanding that the highest court in the United States protect the rights of women and echoing the calls for justice that we shouted through the streets of Cape Town mere months ago. I carry these values with me every day on campus at Duke, where I stand up for what I believe in even if it means correcting a friend or disagreeing with a classmate. I will continue to carry these values with me as I move forward in my Duke career and beyond the comfort of my college bubble, forever fighting to fuel the flame of female empowerment.