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Isabel | Founder - Sport 4 Socialisation

The Charity

Sport 4 Socialisation

Sport 4 Socialisation (S4S) is working to improve the quality of life and promote social inclusion of youth and children living with a disability, and their families. In Zimbabwe, for the most part, children with a disability (physical or mental) tend to be in segregated schools with limited resources to support their special needs. Added to that is the associated stigma/shame that accompanies their disability. In that environment S4S has created a fully integrated system, incorporating children with disabilities in mainstream schools.

Their focus is not limited to the physical rehabilitation of the child; through their programme, they empower families with information, training and access to economic activities and legal advice that in turn help to raise awareness and advocacy in communities. The result of their work: slowly changing attitudes towards disability in Zimbabwe.

Sport 4 Socialisation

Women in Development

Isabel Name
Founder and Director

Can you briefly describe your current role, perhaps a typical day?

I am the founder and Director of S4S.  I am responsible for 11 staff members and about 10 volunteers, who are running the daily operations in Africa. My focus is on fundraising, marketing, monitoring and evaluation, curriculum development, capacity building and training, partnership development and expansion.

The only typical thing about my work is that there is no typical day. Every day is different. Especially when in Africa, no day goes as planned. Many people who have lived and worked in Africa shall recognise this. But this makes it interesting as well. Generally my days are spent in the office, behind my computer and in meetings. But when in Africa I find myself often called to projects activities on the ground, events and a little ad hoc problem solving. I love this variety and love the unpredictable aspect of the job.
Please tell us the story about the founding of Sport 4 Socialisation.

While in my last year in my Bachelor Business Administration, I specialised in Sport for Development, and conducted a one year research project about the value of sport for social inclusion of children with disabilities in developing countries. This resulted in the development of the Social Inclusion Programme concept, which was then piloted in Kenya in 2005. After graduating, I worked in Zimbabwe for a Sport For Development programme, where I led an HIV-prevention project, and trained coaches for adapted physical activity. It was here in Zimbabwe that I got to know the disability sector really well, and was finally asked by various players in this sector to implement the Social Inclusion Programme in Mutare. This led to the founding of Sport 4 Socialisation in The Netherlands and Zimbabwe. After a 6 month preparation period with local stakeholders, we eventually started the programme in May 2008.

What challenges did you face when starting Sport 4 Socialisation? As a woman did you find it easier to relate to the needs of your beneficiaries?

At the height of Zimbabwe’s political and economic crisis, we ran the programme against all odds. I was told many times I would fail. Daily life in Zimbabwe was a struggle; with little to no food in the shops, inflation rates going up twice daily and regular water and electricity cuts. Although not at war, Zimbabweans struggled to get through each day. Over the years the government has not made it easy for foreigners to work in Zimbabwe, especially NGO workers. It is a case of balancing work and continuously watching your back. But with the organisation we fulfilled a need that was so pressing for Zimbabwe’s most disadvantaged group; children with disabilities and their families that we were determined to go on. Our group of beneficiaries kept on growing at a rapid speed as well. We were offering services that the government could not provide anymore, and without which, this target group would sink further into exclusion and physical misery.

We started off with one staff member, a number of volunteers and myself. Today we have 11 fulltime employed staff members running the activities in Zimbabwe and a number of volunteers in The Netherlands, Zimbabwe and the UK. Being a young woman has definitely not made setting up the organisation easy, but within 5 years we now have a well respected and solid organisation. I do not think being a woman makes it easier for me to relate to our beneficiaries. Our male staff members are just as able to relate to them.
There is often a perception amongst those in the commercial world that charity work is an easier career option, with fewer hours and targets and less stress. Do you think this is true?

I think it depends on what level you get involved in a charity and whether it is short term or if you devote your career to the development sector. But certainly founding your own NGO and being the director of the organisation is like running your own for profit company. Especially the first few years, when I was based in Zimbabwe, I worked 70 hours a week. Being a small organisation, you have to get involved in everything; from fundraising, capacity building of staff, implementation of activities, monitoring and evaluation, report writing and accounting. Add to that the complexity of working in an environment like that of Zimbabwe, and it makes everything a lot more stressful.

What would you say are the benefits you’ve experienced working in the charity / International Development sector?

Working for S4S has also given me the freedom to experience other cultures and learn from the people involved in the organisation. It has given me a changed outlook on life and the way I experience and deal with situations. For one thing, I have become more creative and do not give up easily.
A job in the development sector can often mean more modest salary and sometimes a change in lifestyle. Do you think this is easier for a woman to adjust to these changes?

It is definitely true that working in the development sector comes with a change in salary, which will inevitably lead to an adjustment in lifestyle. I am not sure if it is easier for women to adjust to these changes. I think it is rather an individual thing to cope with.

Your work entails travel to Zimbabwe; what advice would you give to women travelling alone?

I have lived and worked in Zimbabwe for 7 years and travelled extensively within Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries. Advice I would give women is: Just do it! Get out there and travel. Be confident. A confident woman is likely to face less hassle than a visibly insecure one. Dress appropriately for the area you are travelling in, and if you go alone, always let a relative or friend know where you are going and by what means of transportation. 

Have you had any interesting local reactions or stories from your travels?

In my work I do get to go on home visits in the most high density suburbs or rural areas. On one occasion, we visited a family and the wife was away for a week, leaving husband and children at home. Whilst the husband settled us in on the sofas in the house, the chickens and ducks ran through the living room leaving their excrement everywhere. The husband was visibly embarrassed and gladly accepted our help to clean his house in the absence of his wife. 

It was also only recently that on a night out in Mutare, a UK colleague and myself went out for some fast food, and I was chatting with the security guy of the complex. By the time my colleague came back, the security guy had decided that he wanted to take me home and started haggling with my colleague. I think he was eventually offered a couple of cows and goats for me!
Do you think there are more or different barriers to women working overseas in charities in less developed countries compared to more western countries?

From my experience in Zimbabwe, I can say I had a double barrier; I was foreign and a woman. On many occasions, during meetings with government officials and other NGOs, where I was the only woman and the only foreigner, I was often not taken seriously. Sometimes I did not receive invites for certain meetings, which I only found out afterwards. Now we have a local coordinator running the operations in Zimbabwe, things are improving, but despite her being Zimbabwean and knowing better how to manoeuvre within the cultural settings, she still faces the barrier of being a woman and having her authority respected.

Luckily our programme has made a name over the years and we are now accepted as one of the major players in the disability sector in our area.
What are the main issues facing women in Zimbabwe and the developing world? Do you think development programmes are adequately addressing these issues?

What I see with the women in our organisation and the women in our programmes is that they are very hard working and devoted mothers, wives and co-workers. They are working hard every day to have their personal and work life in order. In the more traditional settings, I can see that when a girl gets married in her early twenties, she is expected to be pregnant within a year. This leads to her dropping out of either education or work, and looking after the family. We have lost a couple of volunteers like this and despite the talks with the family, the girls were not allowed to return back to the programme. On the other hand, we have female coaches both able-bodied and those living with a disability and they are extremely good role models!
Do you feel there is more gender equality across the development sector today?
I do feel there is a little bit more attention for gender equality these days. For example, I am currently involved in an International Development Masterclass and out of 25 students, only 2 are male! We also strive to have gender equality at our organisation, and at present out of 11 staff, there are only 4 males.
What qualities do you feel one needs to have a successful career in international development?

Qualities that one definitely needs to poses are: determination, endurance, creativity, perspective, perseverance, and understanding of local and international context. It is important to realise that in Africa, things move slowly, and before decisions are made it goes through the hierarchy of the organisation / government. It is also good to have a sense of the fact that things hardly ever go as planned and therefore you need to be able to show some resilience, and be creative with how to move within the changing situation. Lastly, a good dose of humour will help one deal with life in Africa, and work in the development sector in general.
Who or what has been the greatest influence/inspiration on your career in development?

Growing up with an uncle with an intellectual disability acquired later in life, and living with epilepsy myself, made me interested in disability issues. In the developed world, people with disabilities can live a fairly normal live with provision of services readily available.  In the developing world, disabilities are still viewed with suspicion and shame, the result being that people are excluded from active participation with their families and communities, and with little or no access to basic services such as healthcare and education. The greatest influence to keep working in this sector, despite the challenges that are there from time to time, are the children and parents we work with. Their commitment to improving their situation, resilience and perseverance are inspirational. It helps me not to give up, but to keep on improving our work together with them and to expand it.

What advice would you give to other women considering starting a career in the field?

I think advice I would give to anyone is to know what you are doing. Start work well prepared for the development sector. If you are not well prepared, you can do more harm than good. If you want to start a project yourself, ask yourself what it is that you will contribute to the community you are planning to work with. Also before you start, make sure you have an exit strategy in place. It is important that projects remain there even after your support has finished. Generally, it is risky to just start projects because you feel pity for the people you meet during your holidays or internship abroad. The development sector is a very complex sector, so get to know the various players and projects in an area when considering operations there. Create partnerships; together you can achieve more than working alone. Various organisations can share resources, knowledge and best practises to achieve better results for a variety of beneficiaries.

More specific advice to women who want to start in development, be aware of the different roles women play in different communities and cultures. Be sensitive to local customs and beliefs. It does not help to be a strong and powerful woman, if it will offend or disrupt the community you are trying to work with.