Wanda Wright traces the history of Soroptimist Clubs, whose centenary it is this year, including the international, national and local perspectives.
The first Soroptimist club was set up in California, by 80 women, exactly 100 years ago in 1921, with a view to improve the rights and status of women in a male dominated world.
It was a time ripe for change for women, who were wanting independence, equality and freedom, in terms of employment, clothes, politics, marital law, education etc.
This hunger for independence soon spread around the world and Soroptimists became an international organisation, which now, 100 later, has around 71,000 members in 2915 clubs in 121 countries. We have consultancy status at the United Nations where our UN representatives ensure that the voices of women and girls are heard.
The work of Soroptimists International (SI) has diversified over the years and we now involve ourselves in any issues that can empower women and girls to have an equal voice in their communities and to enable them to achieve their full potential. This naturally also includes area like health, education and freedom.
The Soroptimist world is divided into five Federations – Africa, the Americas, Europe, G.B. & Ireland and South West Pacific. The federations are divided into countries and regions and the Kent clubs are part of the South East Region of SI Great Britain & Ireland (SIGBI). The SIGBI Federation also includes most of the countries in the Indian Subcontinent and much of the Caribbean. Each federation and region holds its own annual conference where we can share information on the work that we do.
Kent currently has seven clubs – Bromley, Canterbury, Folkestone, Medway & Maidstone, Sevenoaks, Tunbridge Wells and Thanet. This obviously doesn’t include every area of Kent – enthusiastic women are always welcome to set up their own local club!
The SI Medway and Maidstone club comprises 27 members and we have a broad spectrum of issues which we get involved in:
- campaigning for Human Rights with our partners Amnesty International
- we have always been involved in issues around Domestic Abuse and are presently supporting our local women’s refuges
- we work with other groups to help Medway become a plastic free community
- we support, with money and sometimes a voluntary workforce, educational charities in Africa, Nepal and Ethiopia
- we have worked closely with Kent Police to raise awareness among the public, businesses and organisations, of the problem of local human trafficking .
Soroptimists work as individual clubs, as regions, as federations and as an international community sharing information, work and projects. The following are just a sample of the projects we share.
A global issue which fires up Soroptimists all over the world is Human Trafficking/Modern Slavery. Activities and projects are going on all over the world to raise awareness of this problem. Our Medway club worked closely with Kent Police for three years on this topic and we were instrumental in galvanising Kent Police into taking the problem seriously. Kent and Essex Police soon became one of the best prepared and best informed police forces on this subject, in the country.
Soroptimists all over the world come together on issues like Climate Change sharing knowledge and experiences and, in 2019, SI was privileged to work with the United Nations in producing their 2030 Agenda for Climate Change.
Water, and therefore toilets, are a big hindrance to good health and education especially for women and girls. Girls living in remote areas of the world often have to miss school for one week each month. Toilet Twinning is a charity which provides toilets and hygiene education and Soroptimists all over the world regularly raise money for these to be built for individuals, for communities and for schools. The United Nations World Toilet Day on 19 November is a catalyst for this.
Healthcare and pregnancy in the Gambia
With the health of women and girls in mind, SIGBI partnered with a charity which was raising money to improve access to healthcare during pregnancy and delivery, and to improve the appalling death rate among mothers and babies in Gambia. SIGBI Soroptimists swiftly raised £160,000 This enabled 221 doctors, nurses and midwives to be trained, undoubtedly saving many lives.
SIGBI also partnered, for three years, a charity which helped women in war torn countries where the male population had inevitably been depleted. Women had to learn to support their families so they were taught the necessary skills for a trade and offered microloans to set up businesses.
Little by little, the lives of women and girls have improved by projects such as these and although the world has changed drastically in the last 100 years, for good and bad Soroptimist values and aims remain the same as they were in 1921.
However, there is lots still to be done and we are constantly seeking women who are as hungry for change as our founding members were. These will be women who want to make a difference and have fun doing it with a group of like-minded women.