‘I loved it so much, that I stayed’

Shaheema McLeod.

The career change I made 14 years ago might seem like an odd flip, but it was the best decision I have ever made.

These were the words of Shaheema McLeod, the outgoing director of the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children.

Ms McLeod walked into the centre for a three-month contract to develop a strategy to create opportunities for the women to empower them economically. At the time, she worked in the project management, feasibility and exports fields.

“I loved it so much, that I stayed,” she said.

After her three-month stint, Ms McLeod was asked to head up the centre’s marketing department, and from there she was promoted to centre manager. Thereafter, she co-managed the centre as director with Sinnov Skorge for a year, before taking full directorship in 2012.

Having come to the decision to call it a day, was not one she made lightly.

“I still really enjoy the work. I saw a vision in my head where I want to take the organisation. During my time here, two memories stand out for me. The one is going to the provincial Department of Social Development with a proposal that non-government organisations and government work together, as opposed to against each other. That resulted in the birth of the Khuseleka One Stop Centre, which provide more service for women and children and we could process that for them.

“The prominent thing for us was that access to government services fell flat, and with the Khuseleka model, we could facilitate that process. It is still a work in progress, but it has been groundbreaking. Now when clients are in a dire situation, we can just pick up the phone, and get access to Home Affairs, for example. This is how well the system can work if we collaborate.”

The second significant achieve-
ment, Ms McLeod said, was when they launched their substance abuse unit.

“During our strategic planning process three years ago, we saw a trend coming to the fore where women who seek help also presented with substance abuse. And because of the risk with theft, for example, other shelters denied them access. They would also not be allowed to get the help they need while having their children in their care. We managed to bring all experts together, and we managed to make the substance abuse unit, where women can get help, while having their children with them.

“It is unique and it works. We have a phenomenal achievement of a 98% success rate,” Ms McLeod said.

Over her 14 years of service, Ms McLeod became a fearless activist for women’s rights, advocating for equal opportunities and the right to be safe.

“As much as I have been thoroughly enjoying it, at the same time, it has also become incredibly exhausting. My family had to take a back seat, and I am a firm believer in listening to your mind and your body. If I can’t give 150% to my work, then I have to hand over, and give someone else an opportunity for fresh, new ideas.”

When asked what she will be doing next, she said: “I will spend some time taking care of my laatlammetjie (my five-year-old daughter) and give all my attention to my children. I will take a few months to recover from the work. I have no idea where I will go next.

“Everything that the centre has achieved over the years, all credit is due to the staff. We worked amazingly well together. I would like to thank my colleagues and the women and children, for allowing me to be a part of their journey. The women have shown amazing resilience, and when I witnessed that I feel really blessed. I had the opportunity to meet many heads of state – even international heads of state. However, nothing beats the face-to-face interaction that I had with the women in our care.”

The Khuseleka Model is an initiative of the Department of Social Development that provides support services to women and children who are victims of crime and violence under the Victim Empowerment Programme.

The Khuseleka Model aims to strengthen collaboration between sectors and improve referral protocols by offering services from key government depart­ments and institutions to victims of crime and violence in one space.

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