Sunday 30th July, 2006


Women changing the world

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As the country readies itself to observe Emancipation celebrations on Tuesday, one of the highlights many are anticipating is Miriam Makeba in concert.

Considered the empress of African song, Makeba has won over audiences far and wide with songs such as Pata Pata and the Click song.

But as writer Attillah Springer wrote in last week’s edition of WomanWise, she was not just known for her music, but her stance against apartheid and racism. Wife of Trinidadian revolutionary Stokeley Carmichael, she was banned from South Africa and had her shows and recording contracts cancelled in the United States following her betrothal. Still, she continued her message of peace, winning awards such as the 1986 Dag Hammerskjold Peace Prize.

But while women like Makeba and talk show icon Oprah Winfrey stands out among black women as having made a difference and continuing to do so in the world, there are others who are making their marks quietly.

One of them is this week’s profilee, Dr Shireen Lewis (pg 5).

Originally from Fyzabad, Lewis is the founder of SisterMentors, an organisation created to support women of colour who are working towards their PhDs.

The first black woman to graduate with a PhD in French from Duke University in the United States, Lewis realised that as a doctoral student, she needed help.

Together with three other women, she formed SisterMentors to help other female doctoral students who were finding the long process difficult.

“In 2003, out of 50.6 per cent of women doctorates, only 10.6 per cent went to women of colour — African American, Latina, Asian American and Native American combined,” said Lewis. The appalling figures, she pointed out, show how poorly American universities have done in trying to enrol and keep women of colour in the doctoral programmes.

Many women who attempt to do their PhDs, she said, also juggle full-time careers and family, which makes the process very difficult.

So far, SisterMentors has helped 25 women to graduate with their PhDs and some of them have gone on to work in non-profit organisations, giving back to society.

But Lewis’ organisation has gone beyond just helping women to get degrees. The group also mentors young girls of colour, to encourage them to pursue a college education. The girls selected are from poor families and families with no history of anyone attending college.

Lewis’ story is one of giving hope, of encouraging excellence and motivating women to reach for the stars, in spite of the obstacles.

Motivated by her own desire to always excel after she left high school, one subject short of a full certificate, she is helping to change the world, one educated woman at a time.

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