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Activism goes beyond ending violence

South Africa, 09 December 2020 – Almost simultaneously, and independently, African social media was awash with hashtags originating in Namibia, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa, amongst others. The common thread tying these cries for help was the condemnation of the persistent violence and human trafficking, largely targeted at women.

In 2020, social justice has come to the forefront of the public psyche like never before and as the world observes the International 16 Days of Activism from 25 November, amidst a global pandemic, violence against women has emerged as the silent pandemic across the continent.

“Violence needs to be eradicated from our society, but it is sadly just one of the many overt and subtle ways that women around the world, especially in Africa, are undermined. Women in the modern workplace still contend with widespread harassment, workplace discrimination and microaggressions, as well as the daily pressures they face,” says Flora Jika, Logistics Director, who drives the Women@CCBSA programme.

The staff-led forum was established by Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa (CCBSA) in 2018 as a network where women in the company connect with each other and access resources and tools, case studies and practical guides to advance their careers and have a meaningful work-life balance.

The initiative began as an effort to make the workplace recognise the unique needs of women in the manufacturing sector, firstly by supporting nursing mothers through the creation of lactation rooms at seven of the company’s 12 plants.

In 2019, Women@CCBSA was relaunched to make a bigger impact. Over 40 women were trained as “Lean In” leaders, becoming ambassadors for the programme. These women facilitate and run regular Lean In circles, made up of between 20 to 30 women per session, monthly, where a topic is picked and discussed across every circle. Common issues, including being a working mother, finding one’s voice and more distressing issues, such as violence and harassment, are confronted.

“While it will be some time before we see a comprehensive human resources analysis of the impact of the programme, anecdotal evidence shows that it has had a major impact on the overall climate, for both men and women,” says Jika. “As women, we are a lot more confident, understanding of our strengths and limitations, and most importantly, learning to accept and harness them.”

In 2020, the programme went a step further and organised large-scale conferences. However, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, these were put on hold while the Lean In circles continued, providing women with much-needed support.

Eventually, in August, the first live virtual corporate-wide session was held where over 500 women from the company’s operations around the country tuned in to listen to leaders in the business and celebrated personalities, such as actor Rami Chuene, make-up artist Clara Banx and relationship expert Paula Quinsee. The popularity of these online conferences led to a second one in September and a third in October.

To date, through a robust transformation and inclusion agenda the company is driving to ensure women representation in leadership and the support provided to women through the Women@CCBSA programme, the company has increased its representation of women to 37.5% in EXCO, 40.5% in senior management, 44% in middle management and 33.2% in junior management.

“We are working under a very different climate now with limited movement and engagement. Still, the forum has proven to be even more relevant, as women’s struggles have evolved and compounded during the lockdown,” said Jika. “The combined stressors of working remotely, hands-on parenting and the negative climate surrounding the pandemic, were often worsened by a host of other personal issues, such as unemployment in the family, financial strain, severe illness and bereavement”.

“More than anything, what this programme has revealed is that while violence is a scourge that needs to be stamped out, we need to put as much energy into uplifting women in our communities, homes and workplaces, recognising the enormous pressures they face in raising families while tackling the increasingly challenging corporate environment,” adds Jika.