19 August 2016
|Ulangu Biwaga Hortance, a 67 year old this asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo (far left) with the rest of her graduating sewing class. (Tereda Van Heerden/Jesuit Refugee Service)|
|Hortance has been afflicted with lung cancer, and despite a battery of treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she was determined and graduated at the beginning of women’s month, from Arrupe Women’s Centre sewing class.|
Pretoria, 19 August 2016 - August marks Women’s Month and the 9th day of this month was a public holiday meant to commemorate a very significant moment in South Africa’s history; when thousands of women rose against the repressive Apartheid regime, and refused to be subjected to the then “dompas” laws. Today, the day – and by extension, the month - is marked with commemorations of that courageous moment sixty years ago, yet it is well understood that the conversation around women’s rights in South Africa, needs a lot of advancement.
Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), South Africa recognises that what gives meaning to the month of women in South Africa is practical, real opportunities that give women an opportunity to be self-reliant and financially independent. Through the office based in Pretoria, JRS provides livelihood’s skills training for refugee and asylum seeking women at the Arrupe Women’s Centre. As part of the three month programme, run throughout the year, a small contingent of South African women are included in the programme to address their vulnerability as locals and it is seen as an opportunity to create social cohesion, by having women of different nationalities interacting in an educational environment.
One of these South African women is Ashanti (not her real name), a recovered drug addict and former sex worker. She was living in foster care at the age of 12. She is the third of four children. At the time, she and two of her older siblings had been removed from parental custody and were living in foster care whilst the youngest, a baby at the time, lived with their mother. Ashanti had visited her mother for the holidays and at the time, her maternal uncle, his wife and stepchildren were living with her mother.
Ashanti’s uncle raped her one evening, while her mother was away. She reported the matter to her mother, but her mother refused to believe her. Ashanti feels that her mother treated her badly since that day, treating her as if she was unwanted and unloved.
Ashanti then ran away, back to her foster home. Ashanti would on occasion visit her mother, but the love and care she sought from her mother remained unrequited. “If I wanted a piece of bread, she would ask me, ‘where’s the money to pay for the bread you want to eat? You have to bring in money if you want to eat.’” she would be told by her mother. As a child, her mother taught her that she could earn money through receiving payment in exchange for sex with older men. This is how Ashanti, as a child of 12, was inducted into the risky and exploitative world of exchanging sex for money.
After having spent 13 years as a sex worker and addicted to crack cocaine, Ashanti has a child - having lost her first baby – and wants a new life out of the sex industry.
Ashanti graduated from JRS’s Arrupe Women’s Centre baking class and in doing so received a compact oven and ingredients with which to start a humble business from home. “There is a night school, where I can finish my schooling. I would like to earn the R 500.00 I need to register and finish my schooling. I left school in grade seven, but if I work hard and make it, I’d like to be a counsellor or psychologist one day. I think I know and understand people well.” Ashanti says as a rare moment of hope shines in her eyes.
Ashanti graduated with a number of inspirational women, each with a compelling story, but none as inspirational as that of Ulangu Biwaga Hortance. At the age of 67, this asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is refusing to let age and ill-health be impediments to her in living a full and fulfilled life. Hortance has been afflicted with lung cancer, and despite a battery of treatments like surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she was determined and graduated at the beginning of women’s month, from Arrupe Women’s Centre sewing class.
The sewing machine and material she received as part of her graduation package, she plans to use to launch her business in September, as soon as she has located a business premises and has recovered from her ill-health. “The cold has made my condition worse and I am not physically capable to work as much as I want to. But as soon as it gets warmer I will begin working hard.” Hortance explains.
She has no family in South Africa, but lives with another Congolese family who look after her. Her shear tenacity and determination is the reason why JRS in Pretoria gave her an opportunity. It is our recognition and experience that refugees and asylum seekers, despite overwhelming difficulties faced, do everything in their power to improve on their quality of life.
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