Women making a difference

President of Soroptimist International of Lancaster, Dr Pat Ainsworth and members Tessa Jones, Mary McCormick and Dorothy Jacks present 300 bracelets made by members to Cecily Holland project co-ordinator for Beyond FGM and Cath Holland local organiser of Saving Our Sisters. The bracelets will be used in Pokot, Kenya to support alternative rights of passage ceremonies not involving female circumcision.
President of Soroptimist International of Lancaster, Dr Pat Ainsworth and members Tessa Jones, Mary McCormick and Dorothy Jacks present 300 bracelets made by members to Cecily Holland project co-ordinator for Beyond FGM and Cath Holland local organiser of Saving Our Sisters. The bracelets will be used in Pokot, Kenya to support alternative rights of passage ceremonies not involving female circumcision.

CAMPAIGNING against human trafficking and fundraising to help children with cleft palates are just two of the issues currently concerning the members of Lancaster’s Soroptimist International branch.

Greeted by the president, Deirdre Jacks, I received a warm welcome from the key players of the group, which has 27 members in total.

They range from the youngest member, Helene Walters, 27, to several members who fit meetings around grandchildren.

These inspiring women have more than 35 years of membership between them, and have taken controversial matters into their own hands to try and make a difference both in Lancaster and around the world.

“Educate, enable, and empower is at the heart of Soroptimist International, meaning we help women of all ages to achieve their potential through our global network,” explained Deidre.

“Soroptimist International reaches out to women in all sorts of circumstances. We provide much needed support to women who may not think it is readily available.

“Whilst issues may have changed a little, Soroptimists can still provide a shoulder for those who may not have support from their families, and we are also involved in a lot of initiatives further afield.”

With more than 86,000 members worldwide, I was slightly ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of an organisation so far reaching.

Publicity officer Brenda Flanagan was quick to point out why: “A lot of people have never heard of us, and in some respects we are overshadowed by institutions such as the WI, which received excellent publicity through Calendar Girls.

“We’ve hidden our light under a bushel for so many years; it’s as if we’re the secret society.”

Soroptimists certainly have much to shout about and the Lancaster branch has been busy all year campaigning on international initiatives.

As well as supporting the local mountain rescue team, the branch’s charity of the year, Soroptimist International also fundraises for Smile Train, which provides corrective surgery for children born with cleft palates.

Joint president, Mary McCormick, whose trek across the Sahara desert was recently featured in the Lancaster Guardian, emphasised the difference Smile Train makes to people’s lives.

“Smile Train pays for corrective operations which cost £150, not including after-care,” she said.

“This can completely transform a child’s life, and without the operation it will be an everyday struggle.”

Mary, a reflexogolist, has come up with her own unique way of fundraising by offering a free treatment to anyone providing they give a £10 donation.

She also recently raised £1,500 by walking the Pilgrim Way in Portugal and Spain in aid of Life Education, a children’s health education charity which works with UK schools using mobile classrooms.

Soroptimist International is also tackling controversial issues such as human trafficking which is sadly a growing problem in the UK.

Armed with leaflets, the group has arranged for posters to be placed in public toilets – they include a number which victims can call for help.

“The posters state that not all women have the choice to say no,” explained Deirdre.

“I think that’s a pretty powerful message because we’re not just providing a help number for females, we’re going to the heart of the issue by making men consider the circumstances women find themselves in.”

These determined ladies haven’t stopped there however, and are also taking part in the global campaign against female gender mutilation (FGM), an act which often occurs in western Africa.

“Not much is known about FGM, but we’ve been campaigning to provide a different alternative, both to the girls who go through with it and the women that carry it out,” said Mary.

FGM is usually carried out in a secret ceremony and girls can be taken into the bush for a week. Soroptimist has created an alternative route of passage by making friendship bracelets for girls who do not want to go through the painful procedure.

More importantly, however, Soroptimist International hopes to educate against FGM altogether. We’re focusing on educating mothers, grandmothers, and even fathers,” said Elizabeth Roberts, who is co-convenor of programme action. “Education and thus empowerment is at the heart of what Soroptimist stands for.”

The organisation is also hoping to educate women about childbirth, especially those who may not have access to substantial healthcare. Through working closely with midwife, Cath Holland, in Kenya, Soroptimist International has provided hope for women who have suffered from painful tears during labour, which may lead to double incontinence.

“We have knitted shawls and blankets for the fistula hospital in Ethiopia,” said Elizabeth.

“Cath has worked with women in Kenya and was one of our guest speakers; it was a real shock to realise the complete lack of education surrounding childbirth.”

Mary was also at pains to point out the misinformed practices which are still taking place and the shocking fact that every day, 1,000 women die in pregnancy and due to childbirth related complications.

“It’s considered normal to press on a woman’s stomach when she is in labour in some countries, because those in attendance have not had access to the right training and so think that they are helping the baby along,” she explained.

Closer to home, however, the local branch is tireless in its dedication to campaign for issues which affect Lancaster, such as the lack of a safe centre for victims of domestic abuse.

“Years ago, domestic abuse was a taboo, but now we’re able to discuss it openly and also consider the fact that men can be victims too,” explained membership officer Denise Dalton.

Denise, who felt isolated in her workplace through her position as the only female manager, found that the organisation enabled her to voice her concerns and become part of a strong network.

She joined the branch nearly 20 years ago and says it has seen her through some difficult family times.

“It’s very much a sisterhood here, and we’ve all supported each other through motherhood and changing careers; you are never alone as a member,” she said.

Helene Walters explained why she was so attracted to the group and the opportunities that have arisen as a result of her joining.

“I think the organisation is unique,” she said.

“I’m not just learning through the many guest speakers at the meetings, I’m also having fun and socialising.

“I only wish I’d become a member sooner.”

The group is hoping to welcome new members of a similar age to Helene and raise awareness of what the organisation can offer, both on a personal and much wider level.

“Soroptimism has become much less formal,” added Deirdre.

“Membership used to be focused on business women, but now anyone can join.

“You need flexibility to bring about change and we’re particularly keen to accommodate both young and working mums.”

n To find out more about Soroptimist visit http://sigbi.org/. For membership information, ring Deirdre Jacks on 01524 63721.