Lesley Foster

Ashoka Fellow
This description of Lesley Foster's work was prepared when Lesley Foster was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1996.


In South Africa's Eastern Cape province, Lesley Ann Foster (1996) is engaged in pioneering efforts to develop much-needed services for women and girls who are the victims of domestic violence and abuse. She is also pursuing a carefully conceived, complementary campaign to raise awareness of the problem and actions needed promptly throughout South Africa.

The New Idea

Violence against women and girls is an especially pervasive South African problem and Lesley Foster is convinced that it can be successfully combated only through concerted efforts that combine effective steps to address the needs of its victims at the grassroots level with imaginative efforts to heighten awareness and stimulate the vigorous response of public authorities and private groups throughout the country. Accordingly, she has created a new organization that is providing counseling, stimulating the organization of support groups and helping women who are victims of violence to obtain job skills training and the attendant economic independence that will permit them to break free from abusive relationships. She has also organized a study that will establish the full dimensions of the problem in the Eastern Cape province and serve as a key element in a well-orchestrated nationwide campaign to focus attention on the problem of violence against women and spur the development of needed actions in every province and sector of the country.

The Problem

According to a recent report of Human Rights Watch (a United States-based international rights monitoring and advocacy organization), South Africa has one of the world's highest rates of domestic violence. One in every six women in South Africa is in a violent domestic relationship, 1,000 women are raped each day, and every six days an intimate partner murders a woman. Unfortunately, moreover, anecdotal data from social workers in poor black communities suggest that such violence is on the rise. Public awareness of the problem is growing slowly. In September 1996, the major newspaper in the Eastern Cape province reported that more than 100 allegations of child abuse, almost all of them against black girls, are reported to authorities in and around New London each day. But there is still inadequate understanding of the full dimensions of violence against women and girls in South Africa, in part because most of its victims are reluctant to turn to the police and other public institutions for help. Although detailed information is sparse, some surveys suggest that less than three percent of rape victims in South Africa report the crime to police, and that in only fifteen percent of the cases so reported are the perpetrators actually charged with an offense.
The problem is compounded by the fact that, while most victims are black and comfortably speak only their own African language, people unfamiliar with those languages staff most support services. Most victims view the Departments of Safety and Security (the police), Justice and Welfare as unwelcoming, if not hostile, and they are also deterred from turning to those agencies for help by the social stigma often attached to "speaking up." In addition, institutions capable of helping victims sufficiently overcome their trauma to seek additional assistance are rare, and the few service providers that do exist are swamped with requests for help and are thus forced to focus almost exclusively on defusing short-term tensions.

The Strategy

Lesley is engaged in a multi-pronged effort to combat the problem of violence against women and girls in South Africa and to provide needed services to its victims. In February 1996, she established the Masimanyane Women Support Centre; the first organization in the Eastern Cape devoted exclusively to combating violence against women and girls. Through that organization, she is now developing and implementing both a broad array of services at the grassroots level and leading a carefully conceived and orchestrated initiative to heighten public understanding of the problem and mobilize appropriate responses by government and nongovernmental organizations throughout South Africa. The fledgling Centre has already provided short-term assistance to several hundred women who are the victims of some form of violence. All such services are offered in the appropriate language, and the Centre places particular emphasis on helping the women it serves become economically independent and thus more able to break out of their violent relationships. Women who are prepared to take that important step are referred to the local Independent Business Enrichment Centre, a state-funded initiative with offices throughout the country that provides job skills training and, in some instances, additional support in the form of start-up loans and other assistance for self-employment initiatives.
Through the Masimanyane Centre, Lesley has also organized a continuing series of workshops on awareness and prevention of sexual abuse for teachers from schools throughout the province. Following up on those workshops, the Centre is helping teachers organize support groups for victims of abusive relationships in their local schools. In addition, responding to another pressing need at the grassroots level, Lesley is working to establish a shelter for battered women and their children. She has recently succeeded in obtaining funding from the Japanese government to the construction of the shelter, which will accommodate up to sixty battered women. While resident in the shelter for periods of up to six months, the women will receive counseling and legal advice, and will also pursue formal business skills training courses.
A key initial component of the parallel public awareness and advocacy campaign is a survey aimed at defining the full dimensions of the problem of violence against women in the Eastern Cape province. Drawing on funds she has raised from provincial and national government agencies, Lesley has developed a questionnaire that will be administered to a statistically appropriate sample of women throughout the province with the help of health care workers and students from local universities. University staff from health, social work and law faculties will then analyze the information collected. Findings will be presented in a summary document, supplementary research will be initiated as required and a series of meetings will be organized to present the study's conclusions to as wide an audience as possible in all parts of the province.
Lesley is also laying plans for a "national summit." At that gathering, in addition to presenting the findings of the Eastern Cape survey, she intends to propose a "Survivor's Bill of Rights" and to encourage each of the country's nine provinces to develop its own "No Violence Against Women Action Plan" and charge appropriate groups with responsibility for its implementation. The summit will also set the stage for a continuing lobbying effort, and she has added a lawyer to the staff of the Masimanyane Centre to spearhead that effort.
Believing that broad grassroots work is the key ingredient in mounting a successful campaign for the prevention of violence against women in South Africa, Leslie has declined offers of senior-level posts in the provincial and national government. But the approaches she is developing in the Eastern Cape are already being replicated in other provinces, and her strategy holds great promise for producing a major impact throughout South Africa.

The Person

Lesley was born and raised in East London, a small coastal city in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. She went to state-operated schools that, under the apartheid structure of the times, were seriously under-funded and academically inferior to those attended by privileged white students. Undeterred, however, Lesley was a high achiever from an early age. When she was thirteen, she and a friend (Kriben Pillay, who has gone on to become one of the country's top playwrights) founded a drama group and produced, with a supportive teacher's guidance, a number of stage productions. She was also an active debater, and, in part on the basis of her English language ability, she was selected to debate at the provincial level with children from privileged schools. She became an accomplished athlete as well, competing in the long jump at the provincial level, and she captained her school's athletic team. As a young adolescent, Leslie also manifested a strong community service orientation. As a youth leader in the Anglican Church, she arranged visits to homes for the elderly and honed her organizational skills in related fundraising activities.
Lesley began her working career as a salesperson and design consultant for a firm in Cape Town, and she was appointed four years later to the senior sales manager position. Subsequently, in a marketing post in another commercial firm, she pioneered the tele-sales concept, for which she received an award of excellence in 1990. She also earned national recognition as "Most Improved Sales Person of the Year" in 1991.
That same year, however, she made a major shift in her course and joined the staff of the Daily Bread Charitable Trust in East London. During her stay with the Trust, she was trained in childcare and worked with abandoned, abused and neglected children. At the Trust, Lesley opened more than twenty soup kitchens, which provided an average of 5,000 meals per day to people from disadvantaged communities, and she was responsible for other community assistance projects as well. While at the Trust, she also participated in a national conference on child prostitution and in preparing the Eastern Cape's contribution to a national white paper on children's needs.
In 1995, Lesley left the Trust and became the personal assistant of the chief executive officer of the Independent Business Enrichment Centre (IBEC). In that assignment, she was responsible for coordinating the activities of six branches of IBEC nationally. She also organized a series of national conferences on micro- and small-scale enterprise development, which gave her a crash course in the problems of women who, for reasons of abuse, were trying to find or create new income-earning opportunities.
The latter assignment, and her own experience as a victim of early sexual abuse and of domestic violence in her marriage, have provided Lesley both with unusually sensitive insights into the problems of women and girls who are victims of violence and with compelling motivation for her current efforts to create more effective ways of addressing their needs.