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How Sparrow Society in Cape Town empowers women through work

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Sparrow Society’s warehouse opens onto a street, south of the rush of downtown Cape Town, overlooking Muizenberg Mountain. It’s just blocks away from the sea.

The chattering of sewing machines accompanies the buzz of women working behind the shop, which sells 100% responsibly made, female-farmed coffee and African-inspired home goods and apparel. The afternoon light shines through the front windows, lighting the hands of women cutting, sewing, stitching, and packing.

“Just like the sparrow bird of our namesake, women are often thought of as small and insignificant,” Kate Senekal, the founder and managing director of Sparrow Society. “[Just like sparrows], women are hugely underestimated. We actually hold a massive amount of power and potential, especially when we work together.”

In the warehouse, Kylin Brandt cuts the linings for cosmetic bags following a recent order for Elizabeth Arden, a Sparrow Society partner for the past five years. She’s young and hopeful, and her bright smile matches the sun on Muizenberg Beach.

“This is our second home,” Kylin said.

In a place where gender inequality is a reality that many women face, Sparrow Society is helping women financially sustain themselves. “By providing economic opportunities for women, we are restoring the power back into her hands to protect herself, provide for her family, and reach for a better future,” the website reads.

“You come here with a lot on your shoulders, but when you step into the store, the weight just goes off. You’re coming into peace,” Kylin said. As a 27-year-old mother of two from Ocean View, Kylin has been a “SewBoss” for three years. When her second baby was born in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kylin could work from home with her newborn. “This means everything to our family,” Kylin said. Kylin had been the only breadwinner in the family. Her mother later joined Sparrow Society as a SewBoss after her husband passed away. Sparrow Society’s SewBoss model is a network of home-based women, with an option of working in person. Sparrow Society also provides sewing machines and training at the A21 and Saartjie Baartman Centre safe houses for women to gain the necessary skills of the trade.

Adapting to a global pandemic

When businesses closed around the country due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Sparrow Society’s home-based model allowed seamstresses to continue earning an income for themselves and their families.

“A lot of women in Cape Town were losing their jobs who worked in factories as seamstresses,” Kate said. In contrast to other businesses, in 2020 alone, Sparrow Society recruited and trained 100 women as SewBosses. Before the onset of COVID-19, half of the manufacturing took place on-site, but with the pandemic, they shifted to home-based work, where women only need to come in one time in person. “We do training, orientation, interviews, [and] quality check[s] all in one day,” Kate said. After that first visit, the women can continue their work from home.

A driver from Sparrow Society visits each SewBoss weekly at her home to deliver new assignments, collect finished work, and check in with the women.

“I know a lot of people, especially close friends and family [who are unemployed]. COVID has really knocked hard on their door,” Kylin said. “Work is very scarce out there. People are job-hunting every day, but not finding any work because most of the places closed down. But they shouldn’t give up. There’s always hope outside.”

How working from home is empowering women

The SewBoss model empowers women with flexibility and ownership, so they can care for their children and families while keeping the power to control their work in their own hands. SewBosses are able to work through pregnancies and maternity leave, and during COVID-19, the option to work from home provided a safer option, keeping the women safe from exposure to the virus. Kate says it’s a model that can be replicated anywhere.

“The programme came at the right time,” Adelaide Tsosane, a SewBoss from Khayelitsha, said. “Then I was pregnant, and it was in the middle of lockdown,” she said. “I’m the one person who gets an income at home who feeds everyone. I was very, very grateful because it meant I didn’t have to sit [for] the four months of maternity leave with no income. I can work from home,” she continued.

“They can finally rest. The security of knowing that there is work has [been] great,” Kate shared. “And with so many kids [at] home as well, women being able to work from home…[has] worked really well.”

Fostering a community

For Adelaide, however, Sparrow Society is more than simply a place of work. When she became pregnant, she was not alone. Sparrow Society is a community where women support each other and lift each other up.

“It’s life-changing,” Adelaide said. She started working for Sparrow Society in 2018 as a seamstress. Now she is a SewBoss manager and a trainer.

When asked how it feels to train other women, Adelaide, who is a single mother of two, said, “It’s really empowering for me. I have an 18-year-old-boy, so I was a teenager when I had a baby. With no job, it was really hard. So for me to be here today, for me to be having an [similar] impact on someone’s life, it’s really great.” She continued, “What I like more about [working at Sparrow Society is that] it makes me a better person.”

There’s something exciting about this room exclusively full of women where empowerment and gender equality are at the forefront of their work. It’s a place women can work together, collaborate with each other, and learn together in a safe space that cares for them and meets their needs.

For Adelaide and Kylin, this is what empowerment in a safe, female space looks like.

Within Sparrow Society, there are also opportunities for upward growth and education. The organization has provided Kylin with a scholarship to study clothing, textile, and manufacturing at the College of Cape Town, and allows her to work part-time as a production assistant while she’s in school.

“It’s changing a lot of women’s lives,” Adelaide said. “I want [women] to be able to get a job [here], so they too can train their daughters. Teach your daughter a skill at home. Teach your neighbor. Help your neighbor out. So you are changing someone’s life bit by bit.”

What sets Sparrow Society apart from other similar organizations is their ability to provide remote employment for over 100 women in the townships and suburbs around Cape Town. The women here receive smartphones equipped with an app designed to teach them business skills so they can learn freely from the comfort of their homes. And thanks to the organization’s partners, each woman’s income is secure. Sparrow Society regularly provides cosmetic bags, conference totes, t-shirts, and masks through partnerships with Elizabeth Arden, Woolworths, Dermalogica, City of Cape Town tourism, and local nonprofits such as The Kolisi Foundation.

“We sew for [Elizabeth Arden’s] global distribution, which is why we’re able to have 100 active SewBosses at a time,” Kate said.

“A lot of people think profit and people compete,” she said. “But it doesn’t have to be that way if you think outside the box, and ask how you can support people better. They are safer and happier and empowered.”

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