The Rights and Wellbeing of Women and Children: South Africa Service Trip

Part 2 in a series of blogs about Wheelock College’s Service Trip to South Africa. Read the full series

Masimanyane CEO Lesley Ann Foster (center right) with some of her staff members and visitors from Wheelock

Professor Bobbi Rosenquest, our Wheelock students, and I left the quiet bush country for bustling East London, the second stop on our South African journey. We started our first day with visits to four early childhood development (ECD) centres in the Duncan Village township and we would visit four more centres the following day. Bobbi and I watched as the students took in the challenging conditions under which most of the centres operate. Yet as always, the principals warmly welcomed us and it took no time at all for our students to engage with the teachers and the young children in their care.  

Our students sat down on the classroom floors, opened the learning kits they brought, and demonstrated how simple objects such as colored pipe cleaners and clothespins can be used to help young children learn key concepts that underlie academic skills. Our visits to the centres were led by staff members from Matsibumbane Development Organization (MDO), a local NGO that supports ECD centres by providing training and consultation. Soon, MDO staff, the teachers, and members of our Wheelock group were engaged in mutual learning focused on best practices for working with young children. And as always happens, the learning was punctuated by singing and laughter.


Social Work major Ashley Smith works with a group of students while their teacher looks on.Later that afternoon, we visited the School of Education at nearby University Fort Hare (UFH).  Bobbi and I embraced our many friends and colleagues at this historically black institution.  We took advantage of our time together to fine-tune plans for offering a Wheelock Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Development and Family Support at UFH, scheduled to begin next fall, discussing strategies for ensuring the program’s relevance to practitioners and families in the greater East London Area. Meanwhile, our Wheelock students were whisked away by several UFH student council members for a tour of the East London campus. As one might expect, many new social media connections were made.

On our last day in East London, we awoke to grim headlines reporting that two East London women had been found murdered, news representing a growing phenomenon in South Africa. It so happened that we were scheduled to spend that morning at Masimanyane Women’s Rights International, the leading organization for protecting the rights and well being of South Africa’s women and girls. Nearly a dozen of Masimanyane’s staff members informed us of the work they do in preventing and intervening with family violence, sexual assault, and HIV/AIDS. They are powerful advocates, assisting vulnerable women and girls in the court system and helping them find housing and other resources. Their passion, commitment, and courage were truly inspiring, especially for our students pursuing social work degrees.

After exchanging hugs and posing for too many laughter-filled group photos, we bid farewell to our hosts and rode to the airport in near silence, each of us reflecting on the vulnerability and remarkable resilience of women and children in South Africa, at home, and around the globe.

Lenette Azzi-Lessing, Wheelock College Professor of Social Work, is the author of “Behind from the Start: How America’s War on the Poor is Harming Our Most Vulnerable Children” (2017, Oxford University Press). She joined the Wheelock faculty in 2006, with more than 25 years’ experience as a social worker, administrator, and policy advocate. Her work focuses on improving the well-being and life chances of vulnerable, young children and their families, particularly those living in poverty and those involved in the child protective system. Dr. Azzi-Lessing is the founding director of Wheelock’s Graduate Certificate Program in Early Childhood Mental Health and is faculty leader of the college’s Partnership for Early Childhood Development in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.