At a time of high teenage pregnancies, HIV/Aids prevalence, blessers and sugar daddies, 31-year-old Zikhona Vellem from Duncan Village has taken it upon herself to groom girls and young women from her community to become women with sound principles and values.
Following her ultimate dream of becoming a positive role model to young girls, the unemployed office management graduate founded Ikhayalethu Girls’ Club.
This is a haven for young women to meet and discuss issues that hamper their quality of life on a day-to-day basis.
A makeshift prefabricated structure has become a home-from-home for most of them.
The non-profit club has been running for a year and Vellem says she wouldn’t trade it for anything.
“Growing up, I craved having an older figure to talk to about my own challenges.
“This girls’ club has given me an opportunity to be that for younger girls.
“Having a girl’s club is something I’ve always been passionate about, and when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped at it.
“Having lived here my entire life, I always saw young women hanging around on street corners without anything to do, and one day I approached them and invited them to talk,” she said.
The club presently has 15 girls between the ages of 15 and 24.
Vellem says although she wanted to see the number grow, her main aim was to help produce changed women who live improved lives.
The group meets four times a week to discuss anything from dropping out of school and poor academic performance to sex, relationships and identity.
“Since we began, the biggest realisation I’ve made is that some of these girls aren’t dating older men simply for money and the promise of a lavish lifestyle, but because of a lack of a father figure in their personal lives.
“They go to older men looking for attention and affection, and someone to tell them that they love them,” she said.
When she can afford it, Vellem provides them with a meal, as well as basic necessities like sanitary towels.
She has also partnered with the University of Fort Hare in assisting the women.
Once a week, social work students come to meet with the young women and to offer counselling.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a father figure and that affected me negatively for a long time as it was an issue that was never touched.
“I only discovered that I was suffering when I met social workers at varsity.
“I was introduced to a world I never knew growing up in Duncan Village. As I went through counselling, it opened my eyes and helped me to change my life.
“I always make the girls write notes to themselves, me, as well as their family members, and I often find that the core reason behind everything they do is because they feel unloved.
“We then look for ways to improve and work on changing that,” Vellem said.
The group of young women engage in artistic activities like writing poetry, reading, music and drama, which Vellem says are all scripted and prepared by the girls themselves.
Vellem said that since the club began, there had been a significant change in the young attendees’ lives, and some parents were starting to comment on what they were witnessing.
“Most girls around here come from poor backgrounds and often live deadbeat lives.
“Seeing a change in their lives is enough for me.
“Working with young women is my reason for getting up in the morning.
“It brings life to me. I don’t see myself doing anything else for a very long time.”