5 December, 2010

The voices of Commonwealth women captured on this website are inspirational. They challenge the concept that history, whether of a country or the development of education within a country, relates mostly to government decisions or outside interventions. The courage and determination which many of these women have shown to obtain their own education and then to share the benefits of their qualifications with others is a valuable reminder of the importance of the individual. It is encouraging to realise again the influence that such women can have in developing progressive policies at all levels, whether in relation to education, health, business or politics.

It was suggested in 2008 that the CEC might mark its 50th anniversary with a book illustrating the educational experiences of such women and their impact on development in different parts of the Commonwealth. The proposal was immediately endorsed. First it would challenge orthodoxy as a commemorative record, whilst upholding the Commonwealth-wide commitment to enhancing the position of women, as both receivers and providers of education. Second we knew that whatever Rosemary Preston and Mo Sibbons produced would be creative and worthwhile.

As the project progressed, it was agreed to post the stories we were receiving on their own web site. This would give greater flexibility. We would not be restricted in the number of stories we might include or forced to minimise their length. It would also allow easy access to readers across the Commonwealth and elsewhere in the world, in line with the CEC’s concern to enable wider use of the internet for educational purposes.

The CEC was founded to bring educationalists and politicians together to learn from each other, as a platform for informed debate, advocacy and policy revew. Fifty years on, the narratives collected here continue the same tradition. They show just how mutually beneficial learning has become for Commonwealth women, as it has long been for men.

Valerie Davey

Executive Chairperson, Council for Education in the Commonwealth


Use the index on the right to find the stories you wish to read.  You can find contributions by:

  • the name of the author [click 3. Name Index]
  • where they live and/or work [click 4. Region]
  • by topic [click 5. Educational Interest]
  • or by the context within which they work and/or live [click 6. Context].  


There may be more than one contributor from a country or representing a particular educational interest. Click on the ‘older entries’ or ‘newer entries’ tag at the bottom of one person’s text to see the other contributor’s narratives from that same category.

Just click and read …..

To send us your story

If you want to send us your story, or wish to nominate someone else, leave us a message in the comments box with an email address and we will respond.  We read and monitor any message before it enters the public domain and will not publish names or addresses unless invited to do so.


Mary Drury

5 December, 2010

‘Me an engineer? That’s what grown-ups do!’

I was born in England in the late 60s into a comfortable university educated family with an English teacher mother and chemist father. I was the youngest of three and, I think for reasons of nature rather than nurture, was very slow to develop – this was in stark contrast to my elder brother who was considered to be exceptionally bright. At primary school, despite being a slow reader and complaints from my teachers that I ‘did nothing’, my parents did believe that there might be more going on in this serious child’s head and it is credit to their support in these early years that I eventually stopped watching and started doing.

My parents chose for me to attend the less prestigious secondary school, a different school to my siblings, because there was less streaming of abilities and so they believed I would have more chance of catching up. This worked for me and in my teens I developed a theoretical interest in and aptitude for maths and sciences.  However I lacked any practical confidence. My father tinkered with an old boat and did some DIY but I do not remember that he encouraged any of us to get involved. My mother was/is a self confessed technophobe – finding the tuning of the radio beyond her – and I felt myself to be like her.  I also found it difficult to conform at school and I think that one of my secrets for success later in a male dominated world is that, as often the only woman, I was no longer expected to conform. However, in the 6th form I floundered again as the only girl in the Physics class with a sarcastic male teacher and no class friends and eventually dropped out with glandular fever. I did however return the following year determined to prove to the teachers that I could do it and, much to their surprise, got good grades and a place at York University to study Theoretical Physics.

The real turning point for me was when I spent a life changing week at the Centre for Alternative Technology in North Wales.  The whole ethos of the place made me realise I wanted to do something useful and practical, but I also had an important conversation with the girlfriend of one of the volunteers who complained that she was not being allowed to learn how to use the lathe.  She believed that if she had been a man they would have let her use it but, because women are seen as inherently unpractical, she was not considered safe. She said that the problem was that most women don’t spend their childhood tinkering with cars both because they are not expected to and because they don’t believe they can.  Without knowing it she was talking about me and so shortly after I switched to the much more practical Engineering Design and Appropriate Technology course at the University of Warwick.

It came as quite a shock when I started the course and it fully sank in that I was now studying engineering, a rather practical course for a technophobe. There were only 15 students in my year – 3 of whom were women – with a high proportion of mature and foreign students who were also there because they wanted to do something useful and practical. We had a separate work/common room where we could share ideas and across all years, getting encouragement, help and inspiration from those further on in the course. It was here that I came to understood that a woman’s apparent lack of ability is so often lack of confidence, a natural assumption that she can’t where a man would assume he could.

I was so inspired by tales of others’ experiences in the field that, before my final year, I took an 8 month placement in rural Zimbabwe testing the manufacture and operation of pumps for small scale irrigations. In my childhood my father’s interest in Zimbabwean politics meant we had a series of refugees stay with us, opening a small window into a world outside; this fuelled my enthusiasm to visit that country. I had never been out of Europe before and so it was an enormously challenging time as I was on my own, both culturally and technically, with a practical task to complete and no-one but myself to do it.  I lived in a training centre where rural people (mostly women) came to learn practical skills, such as soap making and pig keeping, and I could see that small projects like mine could make a big difference to their lives. But it is a tribute to a man called Israel, who believed in both me and the project, that I realised I really could be an engineer.

I graduated with a First Class Engineering Degree, which was probably only important for the 4 weeks until I got my first job as a trainee engineer with a hydro turbine and pump manufacturer in the north of England. Engineering can be a very old fashioned environment and I discovered a number of months after I had started work that women were not allowed to wear trousers – no-one had had the courage to tell me! It was a small company but there was another female trainee engineer who complained bitterly that she was not taken seriously because she was a woman. I decided early on that the best way to gain respect was to be good at what I did and that my femaleness was just one attribute of who I am which could provide as many opportunities as problems in the working environment. I might be treated differently, but so might someone who was short, tall, black, fat, thin, pretty, ugly, wore glasses, had the wrong accent or simply didn’t fit in. I have built a career as an engineer in hydropower with many years spent designing, commissioning and troubleshooting the control systems, often having up to 16,000kW of power at my fingertips. I cannot recall feeling obstructed because of being a woman and I think there are a number of occasions where it may have assisted me because  my open co-operative approach could sometimes disarm otherwise difficult people.

The real obstacle was motherhood which came as a surprise because the problem came from within myself.  Apart from the practicalities, I no longer felt able to stay away for indefinite commissioning periods because of the physical ache of the separation from my children.   Is the glass ceiling perhaps sometimes self induced?  So I coasted for a number of years and considered giving up work. But someone has to earn the money so we made the family choice for me, the younger partner, to become the sole earner and a role model to our two girls while my husband focused on the childcare.

I am now a chartered engineer responsible for the construction of new hydro power stations, thus increasing the UK’s renewable energy capacity.  I had thought I might go back to Africa but my life did not lead me there and I have found enough that needs doing to help reduce the excesses of my own country. I am the only female Project Manager in my organisation – a surprising fact as I believe that women are natural organisers – but I never feel marginalised or discriminated against because of my gender. My work environment is dominated by men in the sometimes quite rough construction industry but it is a great job because it is so real and practical and I can see how I am making a difference. When I left school I very nearly took the wrong path because I did not have the confidence to believe I could actually contribute in such a practical way. I am so glad I changed my mind, though I do still sometime laugh at myself – ‘Me an engineer? That’s what grown-ups do!’

Jyotsna Jha

22 December, 2009

An Ordinary Indian Middle Class Woman’s journey

‘This is what happens when you educate your daughters and give them too much independence’,my aunt had remarked. The comment came out of the blue, in the middle of an argument between us on the issue of someone having married outside our caste. ‘My sister and brother-in-law have no idea of what they are doing’, she continued. The reference was to my parents. Being the third daughter in a Brahmin family from Bihar in India, this remark, ironically, was what made me aware of my gender identity at an early age. But I was also an argumentative and assertive individual, not quite a “typical” girl, thanks to a very progressive and democratic father and a mother committed to educating her daughters and not letting them miss what she had missed, combined with enabling schooling experiences at every stage of my life. Whatever else I might have been found lacking in, I never lacked in confidence and, I hope, empathy.

My earliest memories of a school are not of my own – I used to accompany my brother – three years older – to his primary school. I have never talked to him about it , but I think he didn’t welcome this accompaniment, yet he held my hand while walking to school and let me do all the talking while he sat quiet in his class. He still remains a man of few words surrounded by three talkative sisters. My parents admitted me to the first English Medium school in our small town, Katihar. I didn’t want to go and on the very first day jumped from a speeding rickshaw and ran towards home, crying loudly. Behind me was the rickshaw driver – the poor fellow had to stop and explain to curious onlookers on the road so that they didn’t mistake him to be a child snatcher! Anyway, ultimately I grew so fond of my school and teachers, Ms. Bajaj, Mrs, Sahay, Ms. Sahni and Ms. Baweja ( all women!) that I wanted to go even on Sundays! But I was pulled out soon and moved to the nearby government school. My parents were supporting the education of many others in the household – my father’s brothers were in university, my sisters were sent off to boarding school – this was a government boarding school with low tuition fee but residential charges had to be paid. And a cousin, roughly of my age, had joined us for her education. We were both admitted to the same class in the government school as my parents could not afford sending both to a private school. In any case, they also did not see any perceptible difference in quality between private and government schools!

Almost all teachers in this school were male, and my class had about 30 boys and 10 girls. The number of girls gradually dwindled as we moved to higher classes and we were left with only three in class VIII as against 47 boys. This was the science section – the number of girls being slightly higher in the humanities section. I had asked my parents, and they had agreed, to let me continue in a co-educational school, unlike my sisters who had moved to girls-only school at the secondary level. I was a high performer and competed with the boys for the first few places in the class, and therefore my teachers liked me. But they also felt that I was I was a bit ‘too modern’ for my surroundings – having male friends, laughing loudly with them, having them home, receiving too many love letters, going out camping as part of the Scout/Guide activities – all this was not like being a good girl. Our home was full of books and magazines, and my father always engaged us siblings in discussions on wide ranging issues from politics to society.

I stopped enjoying science and moved to humanities after class 10. My father had been forced by his father to pursue science instead of history and he had resented this all his life. As a result, he always encouraged us to do what we liked. I got admitted to the Patna Women’s College choosing general humanities and later, Economics honours for my under-graduate degree. It was a novel experience – I had never been in the company of so many and only girls before. This meant a lot more mischief, a lot more bold misdeeds and a lot more camaraderie! I stayed in the college hostel where me and another friend, a successful lawyer now, used to be constantly ‘black-listed’ by the authorities by restricting our outings. But we knew how to beat that as well. I came in contact with some very good teachers – Ms.Papiya Ghosh, Ms.Kumudini Sinha and Ms.Muniba Sami. Ms. Sami gave a twist to the otherwise drab, moral science classes, by making us analyse different religions – I got my first lessons of exploratory and critical education there! Also, it was here that I picked up English – I had had my schooling till then in Hindi except for the first three years. It was much more enriching in a government run, Hindi medium school, a private, English medium school could have never matched this.

After completing my under-graduation from the college and then a Master’s in Economics from Patna University, I joined for my research, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a premier university in the country especially for the social sciences. This university was a great learning place as there was hardly any issue on earth that we didn’t debate while there – we had the opportunity to listen to and interact with a wide cross section of people – activists, politicians, academics, artists. It was a politically and intellectually vibrant place – what a university is supposed to be! I remain indebted to my supervisor, Prof. Tapas Majumadar and his wife, Gauri di, a primary school teacher – I learnt a lot from both.

After getting my degree and a brief stint with the electronic media, I chose to work with government of India’s education programme instead of opting to become an academic in a research institute. I am happy for having chosen this path. While I continued with research, working with teachers, community groups, government functionaries at various levels and international agencies taught me a lot – something that wouldn’t have happened, had I joined a research institute. I moved on when I felt the job was becoming repetitive, and free lanced combining with some independent research before joining as adviser to the Commonwealth Secretariat in London.

Four years in London and work with a number of Commonwealth countries across the globe widened my experiences and taught me to see things from varying perspectives! The Commonwealth is known as an association of English speaking nations – though many newcomers are not necessarily English speaking, and not necessarily a former British colony. That apart, a majority of the member countries do have a shared colonial past, as reflected in their education system and bureaucratic set-up. However, I got my first shock when I saw English being the medium of instruction at the primary school level in my first school visit to an African country, something uncommon in Asia. My first hand exposure to the very similar human experiences and relations across the globe, whether it relates to gender images and practices; sharp social, economic and educational disparities; stigma and discrimination when it comes to HIV, and other similar issues, was a truly moving and humbling experience. And so was the very English humility and their ability to laugh at themselves, their respect for law and faith in democracy. I am back now in my country – working independently on equity issues in education – within and outside India. My journey, I feel, is that of an ordinary, Indian middle class woman – nothing more, nothing less! I may be a little bit luckier than many others in terms of opportunities and in the kind of parents, teachers and husband I have had!

Lalage Bown

8 December, 2009


  I was born before women in Britain had full voting rights, before education beyond primary schooling was available for the mass of people and when the majority of the British did not question the idea of Empire; so I have therefore had the inspiration of directly witnessing change in the status and role of women, the wider diffusion of education around the world and the dissolution of Empire, followed by the emergence of the Commonwealth.

 My basic academic training was in Modern History, so that my work has been informed by historical perspectives; this has made it easier to take a long view and not to expect instant change over night, but has encouraged me to persist in advocacy, knowing that ideas and actions can be transformed over time. Among causes I have been involved in have been gender justice (including as a founding trustee of Womankind Worldwide), equality in education (my professional concern) and the significance of the Commonwealth as an organisation with no military purpose and based on common values. My career was in university adult education, in Africa and Britain, and I gained leadership rather young (I was the first woman professor of adult education in the Commonwealth), which in my field meant constant political engagement, both inside and outside the institution.

 Three influences were fundamental to my life and career. First, my mother, who retained a lively and enquiring mind until her death at the age of almost 98 She had a good secondary education and passed the university entrance examinations of those days, but she had no chance of going further, because at that time, British girls were pushed out onto the marriage market. When my father proposed to her, she laid down one condition: that any daughters would have equal educational opportunities with any sons they might have. I owe it to her therefore that I had the chance of a good education, though as the eldest of four, I accepted that I had to help pay my way with scholarships etc.

 Secondly, I went to Somerville College, Oxford, in an era when  few people had any chance of a university education and among them only a very small number of women; there were 600 women compared to 6,000 men students at Oxford in 1945. This gave me an abiding sense of privilege and therefore of obligation, both to use my education for the benefit of others and to do my best to find ways in which the wider public could share in the services of universities. The atmosphere in the college (then for women only) was one in which the majority of us were motivated by ideas of social justice, including a rebalancing of society for gender equality.

 Thirdly, my father’s working life was in India and Burma – he passed out top in the Indian Civil Service exams in 1919 – and I spent my early childhood in Burma, so I grew up in the heyday of the Raj, respecting my father’s motives, but soon beginning to question the rationale of Empire. At the end of the Second World War, part of our quest for a fairer world was for one in which colonised countries regained their independence and I wanted to play a part in that process. I therefore applied to join the newly-established Extra-Mural Department of the University College of the Gold Coast and had my first taste of gender discrimination, when my fitness for the job as a woman was questioned. I was, however, appointed and lost no time in starting an extra-mural class for young women in basic political skills. When one of my students went to prison for taking part in an independence demonstration, she sent her jailer to keep up with the course on her behalf. Later, when I was in Uganda, as my then superior was sceptical about the idea, I took my own time to teach English, the official language, to groups of socially significant women, whose voices were muffled by not having that language. Towards the end of my formal working life, I had the chance of undertaking a major piece of research into the impact of literacy acquisition on adult women and my findings had an effect on British Government aid policy at the time.

 During my thirty African years, we in universities moved from engaging with the colonial authorities to dialogue with rulers of independent countries. The latter were sincerely enthusiastic about broadening the scope of primary education, but often not fully understanding of the value of access to relevant university knowledge by any citizen – and this is true in Britain also. Nevertheless, the new African universities were able to make various innovations. Among those for which I took some responsibility were: the first rural folk high school in Africa, in Ghana; radio listening groups in Nigeria in the 1960s, developed into a Voice of the University in Zambia and later a University of the Air in Northern Nigeria; and the study of current affairs linked to role education for such groups as army officers and women legislators in Zambia.

 When I returned to Britain and became head of adult and continuing education at the University of Glasgow, I consulted with colleagues and the local authorities on issues about possible lack of social justice; and as a result, we developed courses in race awareness, with a team deliberately chosen to have an equal balance of indigenes and new Britons and of men and women. I give this example, to show how to the end of my working life, I tried to apply my principles.

 Beyond professional activities, I have always tried to take an active part in public arenas and community organisations, partly with the motive of ensuring that women’s voices were heard. Such involvement helps one to understand social under-currents and to engage in various advocacy programmes. In Britain, I have been an elected vice-president of the Workers’ Education Association  (WEA) and nominated Vice-President (for 21 years) of the Townswomen’s Guilds. I am currently, among other things, a Trustee of the Britain-Nigeria Educational Trust and of BRIDGES, the Shropshire development education body, and patron of the African Families’ Foundation.

 In particular, I have in the last few years devoted myself to the Council for Education in the Commonwealth (CEC), having been a Board member from 2000 to 2007 and joint executive vice-chair between 2002 and 2006. NGOs have a vital part to play in the Commonwealth and I have a conviction that the CEC is well placed to advocate quality rather than just quantity in the educational expansion in many countries since 2000 and in working for continuing serious interchange between universities around the Commonwealth.

Nemata Majeks-Walker

7 December, 2009


The heights by great men (and women) reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight;
But they, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.

I am happy to have this opportunity of sharing my life story for two reasons: the first is to illustrate that apparent disadvantages in one’s early life do not necessarily lead to an inability to achieve in later life; the second is to underscore the fact that in order to succeed one must be prepared to persevere and to strive for definite goals.

I was born in the east end of Freetown to a Muslim family. I was the only child of my mother who tragically passed away when I was only five years old, leaving me to be raised by my great grandmother, relatives and family friends. Of these people, I am particularly grateful to my aunt, Haja Memuna Kallay, who did her best to instil in me strong moral values and ethics.

I began school at the Amaraia and Hoy Trinity Primary Schools. Later, quite understandably, my great grandmother could not cope with the high-spirited teenager that I was, so after a brief spell at the Methodist Girls’ School I was dispatched to the Magburaka Secondary School for Girls in Mathora. Apart from the fact that I was a boarder where I was under stricter supervision, the move took me closer to my dad who worked in Kamakwie.

Our Principal was the late Mrs. Oredola Fewry. It was not long before she noticed this noisy girl from Freetown who found it so difficult to obey instructions. Probably at a loss as to what to do about me even as a senior girl, she set a precedence by appointing me Senior Prefect of the school. She rightly conjectured that doing that would keep me in check. And indeed her ploy played a significant part in helping me to become the first girl from the school to pass the General Certificate of Education Ordinary level Examinations.

After that it was back to Freetown where I was accepted at the Annie Walsh Memorial School to pursue sixth form work. I was also as a boarder there and that again helped me to acquire my A-levels. I have fond memories of my form teacher, the late Mrs. Margaret Greene and my English Language and Literature teacher, Miss Omojowo Lawson. I owe a lot to these two women for their patience and guidance.

The completion of my A-levels enabled me to acquire a government scholarship to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree. At FBC, I encountered tough lecturers like the famous Geography lecturer, Dr. Enid Forde, who was our Hall warden (Warden of Women Students), and Dr. Gladys Harding of the Department of Education.

I had a rather unforgettable encounter with Dr. Gladys Harding when I started teaching practice at the AWMS. On my first day, I didn’t realise that I should have prepared notes for the lesson I was going to teach. As my Observer, Dr. Harding needed to use those notes as a guide as she watched me teach.

As soon she entered the classroom she asked for my lesson notes. I just stood there, dumbfounded. Being the kind of no-nonsense person that she was, she began telling me off in front of the whole class in no uncertain terms. I don’t think I have ever been so ashamed of myself. There I was – me a high and mighty budding teacher all dressed up in my best clothes, looking elegant to impress the girls. I even wore tights in spite of the heat. Instead I was being told off in front of them! It was humiliating and I cannot now remember how I got through that lesson but I remember surreptitiously wiping away my tears and doing the best I could. What is important though is what followed.

Reader, what would you have done if you were in my place? What I did on my return home was decide that to pass my Teaching Practice, I must try to have her on my side. So I rang her up and apologised. She asked me to see her at her office the next day, which I did. There she explained all the Teaching Practice procedures which I had not followed even though she had painstakingly taught them in class. From then on Dr. Gladys Harding became my mentor. The happy ending of that story is that I ended up with a distinction in teaching practice!! The lessons I learnt:
Humility is a virtue!
Pride goeth before a fall!!!

At this stage also, I was blessed by senior friends, notably Professor and Mrs. Eldred Jones, who became my adopted parents and had a positive influence in my life, literally taking over the role of my aunt Haja Memuna Kallay in terms of chiselling my rough edges. In spite of the efforts of these three wonderful people I must confess that, as an undergraduate I was always a member of any group that was organising strikes on campus over one cause or the other. However, when I left Fourah Bay College as a student it was with a Bachelor of Arts Degree with Honours in English Language and Literature, which I earned in 1972 and a post-graduate Diploma in Education which I received the following year.

In 1973, I left for the United States where I did a Masters Degree in English as a Second Language at the University of Illinois, Champaigne-Urbana. I completed the course in 1975. I returned to Freetown in1976 and worked as a part-time lecturer in Foundation Studies at Fourah Bay College and as Teacher of English Language and Literature at AWMS. I was there till 1981 and during this time I was made Co-Head of the English Department. From there I went to work as a Curriculum Development Officer for English at the Institute of Education in Freetown, organizing in-Service Training for teachers of English, among other activities.

In 1983, I was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue a PhD. in Distance Education at University of Surrey, Guildford, UK. As part of the course I designed a Distance Education Course on the teaching of English as a second language. Upon graduating from University in 1986, I worked extensively as an Education Officer in London, up until the early 1990s.

In 1994 I was appointed by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office on contract to the Government of Ghana as Adviser in English Communications Skills and Distance Education. My duties entailed providing professional assistance to the newly established University College of Education of Winneba, Ghana. During my time in Winneba, I successfully established the Ghana English Studies Association and a home reading scheme which enabled parents teach their children to read and (in the case of illiterate parents), school-going older siblings to teach reading to younger siblings.

By this time Sierra Leone beckoned, and I returned home. In 1998, I was appointed an Education Consultant for PLAN International in Sierra Leone. In this position I was responsible for strengthening the Education system through the rehabilitation, reconstruction and refurbishing of damaged school infrastructure and providing resources as required in PLAN’s operation areas. I was also responsible for drafting the Country Strategic Plan, including Country Program Outlines. This challenging appointment was brought to an abrupt end by the 1999 January 6 rebel incursion into Freetown.

From this time on, my pattern of operation changed in a marked way. I ceased working directly for any single organisation and I established the NEMAYA Education and Training Consultancy in 1999 which marked a significant change in my career. I turned my attention to freelance short-term national and international consultancies. As its Chief Executive, I have undertaken various consultancy assignments for the British Council and other international Agencies.

This new development kept me very active and culminated in vigorous participation in the formation of the 50/50 Group and the empowerment of women in Sierra Leone to become more emancipated and active in public life. The Mission of the non-partisan 50/50 Group of Sierra Leone is to campaign for more women in politics and public life through training and advocacy. We aim to change the public’s perception of women in politics and public life. The motivation for the formation of this group was the recognition, following the final end to our long civil war, that women were essential but missing players in the peace process.

In spite of all the efforts and recognition of the fundamental rights of women and men to participate in political life, in practice inequality in the area of power and decision-making still exists. What do we do to address this problem? The answer to this question is the reason why we are happy to be asking all schools to set up 50/50 clubs which we will sponsor and support. This will enable students to develop awareness of the fact that a woman’s place is as much in the kitchen as in GOVERNANCE and PUBLIC LIFE!! It will give students much needed political knowledge that is not in the schools’ curriculum.

In 2003, I was a Commonwealth observer in the Pakistan elections. In 2005, I was given a consultancy by the United Nations Mission in Liberia to help develop the Liberian Women’s Manifesto and train their candidates. Liberia has in fact produced the first female president in West Africa. I received another international recognition from the Commonwealth when I was sent as one of three experts to observe elections in Belize in February 2007. These exposures to comparable activities in other countries widen my experience and are of benefit to the 50/50 Group as I get new insights from each involvement.

It has not been “all work and no play”. My membership of the Rotary club in Accra, Ghana was transferred to the Rotary Club of Freetown. This is a 64-year old prestigious male-dominated service club in which I was privileged to serve as the first and so far the only female president in 2003.

Throughout the years, I have managed to balance my career and role as a wife and mother. I feel that my greatest achievement in life is the fact that I have been able to balance wife-hood/motherhood and an exciting career life with seeing my daughter and son almost single-handedly through to post graduate degree levels of education. These were very challenging tasks but with the help of God I have been able to succeed in playing the balancing act. The road to success is long; it is hazardous, with many pitfalls along the way. Sometimes I’ve stumbled, at other times fallen flat on my face. The secret was never to give up. When you fail or fall, get up, dust yourself down and keep on keeping on. I now look back with pride at the road down which I have travelled and see my footprints quite clearly on the sands of time.

About us

27 November, 2009


The Council for Education in the Commonwealth (CEC), a parliament based NGO, was founded 50 years ago, at the time of the first Commonwealth Education Ministers’ Conference.

Its purpose is to create an informed public opinion on the salient issues concerning education and training in the Commonwealth and to identify appropriate ways in which Britain and the European Union can best contribute to their development.

General Enquiries:

Commonwealth House
7 Lion Yard
Tremadoc Road
London SW4 7NQ

Tel:  + 44 (0)1277 212357


The Commonwealth is a voluntary association of 53 countries that support each other and work together towards shared goals in democracy and development. The Commonwealth Secretariat plays a defining role in facilitating cooperation and dialogue among those 53 member countries.

General Enquiries:

Commonwealth Secretariat
Marlborough House, Pall Mall,
London SW1Y 5HX, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7747 6500
Fax: +44 (0)20 7930 0827

Hilda Vemba

26 November, 2009

HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases: ‘I am really passionate about what I am doing: it always boils down to education and education.’

My full names are Hilda Frances Vember (nee Croy). I was born on the 30 September; 1955. My parents are William and Caroline Croy. I am very fortunate to have both my parents and all my siblings still alive, although my Dad is not well. He is 78 years old and my Mom is 77. I am the second eldest sibling, out of 8 children. I have 5 brothers, one older than me and two sisters, both younger than me. I was born into an ordinary working class family. My father was a carpenter, who subcontracted for “white” bosses all the time. My Mom worked as a domestic worker and then in a factory. After the birth of my eldest brother, she became a house wife and reared all of us. This was a real bonus to have my mother at home, seeing us off to school and being there when we came back.

I grew up in an area called Bellville South. This area was allocated in the apartheid era only for coloured people. It is predominantly an Afrikaans speaking community. Tuition at all our schools was in Afrikaans, and it was my home language. Our area has three primary schools and two high schools. We also have two universities, approximately 3 km. from our home. So we were always surrounded by university students.

The shops were predominantly owned by the Muslim community and are still like that today. I was not exposed to many cultures as I grew up as we were predominantly coloured and Muslim people living in our town. We have a number of different churches as well as two mosques around us. We also had multiple sports fields. My entire family loves sport and all of us participated in various sport codes. My parents always encouraged this.

Like all so called black (which includes coloured) communities, our town is also divided into economic and sub–economic housing. A main street divides my community from the real poverty stricken areas where I grew up. I currently live in the same area of Bellville South, but just in a more upgraded suburb, called Glen Haven Estate. Close to where I live, children are malnourished and underweight. Unemployment is rife, so is drug abuse, and children and women are abused. House break-ins and car theft are the order of the day. We have one health centre which serves this community. HIV/AIDS and Tuberculosis, plus chronic diseases of lifestyle like hypertension, diabetes and cardiac related illness are common. With the influx of immigrants from all over the region, the clinic cannot cope with the real demands of every day health care.

I grew up in a fairly protective home environment and my father was strict with all of us. He was a real disciplinarian. I grew up in an extremely male dominated and patriarchal household, where my dad ruled the roost. My mom was the peacemaker and home organizer. Yet, I was raised in a loving and very religious home. We worship (I still do) in the Anglican faith.

Education was a priority and both my parents ensured that all of us received good schooling. Of my five brothers, two are high school teachers, two more who own their own business and one brother works for our South African Defence force. Of my two younger sisters one is a primary school teacher and the youngest sister is in corporate banking. I am lecturing in nursing and am currently busy with PhD studies. As well as being family we are all still very good friends. We enjoy getting together. Seven of us are married, live on our own but are one big happy family together with our children and spouses. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and Easter we all celebrate together.

I schooled at ordinary public schools, where I was one of 40-50 pupils from primary to high school in my class. However, with dedicated teachers and a loving supported family, I managed to always do well. I was a hard and consistent worker. I became the head prefect in matric and it is there that I developed my leadership skills. While at high school, my teachers all felt that I was a “born” teacher. However, I always wanted to be a nurse. After matric, I started my diploma in nursing at Somerset hospital in Green Point, Cape Town. I wanted to go and do the degree course, but my parents could not afford to send me to university. I therefore opted for the diploma course, where I earned a measly salary as a student nurse. I still had to give my parents the bulk of the money, but I kept some pocket money. This is where my real independence started. Against my father’s wishes, I had no choice but to leave home as it was compulsory for all student nurses to live in nurse’s residence. This was a marvellous experience which forced me to become mature instantaneously, as I was now faced with preserving people’s lives. Despite my conservative upbringing, I adjusted very well and soon became prefect in the nurse’s residence as well. Twice a week, when I was off duty, I would undertake a half an hour train journey home to spend with my folks and to go to church.

It is during this three year training period when I was introduced to various cultures and dealing with all kinds of people. It was wonderful! I then continued with my diploma in midwifery at the same hospital and finally left Somerset at the end of 1979. I got married to the most wonderful, loving supportive husband, named Ralph and just recently in April, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. He is my rock and support through my entire academic career. We have two wonderful sons, Ian, aged 29 and Robin, age 24 years. Ian is married and I am grandma to the sweetest two little boys, Ethan and Aaron. My daughter in law is Ronelle. Ian is in Human resource management and Robin is a journalist.

In 1982 I went to the Technikon fulltime and completed my Diploma in Community Nursing Science. In January, 1983, I started as a district nurse in a semi-rural area, Philippi in the heart of the city. This was a real eye opener. This community consists of 42 farms and many squatter areas. Only the white farmers live in decent houses. This is where I was introduced and had to deal with extreme poverty, almost absolute poverty in many cases. Most of the farm workers were paid with a tot of alcohol in the morning and at night and earned very little money. I travelled with a fitted-out mobile van from farm to farm to serve the people. All kinds of sexually transmitted diseases were rife, as well as tuberculosis and later on HIV/AIDS. It is here where I had to rely on all my expertise, and with the rest of the team, to attempt to communicate with the extremely difficult and prejudiced white farmers.

The words “kaffir” (for black people) and “hotnots” (for coloured people) were the order of the day, if you did not have a white skin. Some of the white farmers initially did not allow me, because of my skin color, to come onto their premises. I then had to work from outside their gate to see my clients. I did health promotion on a big scale on issues like reproductive health, STI’s and general personal hygiene. There was only one primary school in the area. With the result, very few children pursued high school or further education, but had to go and work as cheap labour on the farms. Most parents were alcoholics.

My role had been clear right from the onset, education and more education. I instituted daily health promotion programmes on the farms and collaborated with important role-players like the priest, the one and only school principal and school staff, church leaders and one social worker, who worked tirelessly in the area. Together we focused on hygiene, nutrition and basic health issues. Soon I discovered that more and more babies were born with syphilis and gonorrhea and more and more adults were diagnosed with the same and other sexually transmitted diseases. I, together with the entire health team at our small clinic decided to embark on a research project within the area. We gained access to the factories firstly where we revealed horrifying statistics.

Despite all the setbacks, there were many successes in the area. Almost all the farmers gave me permission to come onto their premises  and allowed me to start a child care centre. After 9 years of slogging in the area, when I eventually left, 35 farmers had abolished the tot system and workers were earning a better wage. This was the most challenging, but rewarding experience of my nursing career. I still teach community nursing with so much passion and my students benefit from my practical examples of my Philippi experience.

When my boys were 1 and 5 years old respectively, I pursued my first degree through distance learning. In 1994 I completed my BCUR and in 1996 I completed my BCUR-HONOURS degree. This was challenging, rearing children, being a wife and an extremely busy community and church worker. I moved on in my career and started at one of our higher education institutions (HEI) in 1989 as a clinical nurse practitioner in the student health service. Here I was faced with the challenges of young people, especially sexuality related issues. I became involved with first year student orientation programmes and collected basic sexual health information from new the admissions. Eighty per cent of the  students had experienced sex before entering HEI and safer sex practices were unheard of. At that time HIV/AIDS was emerging as a major threat and the findings were extremely worrying. We launched massive campaigns on our campus, focusing on the use of condoms, safer sex practices and sticking with one partner. Students flocked to our student health service for advice, counselling and to be treated for various STI’s. Pregnancy rates amongst students were soaring, so we then embarked on a massive reproductive health campaign, where the focus was on contraception methods. However, the request for abortions became overwhelming, as these young people did not want to go through with their pregnancies. This posed a major problem, as abortion was not legalized in South Africa. Again, it was education and education!

I also started lecturing on a part-time basis at the institution. Finally my dream was fulfilled in May, 2000, when I entered academia on a full-time basis. I teach post-basic nursing courses, but am still hands on, as all the courses have quite a big practical component. So I do have an opportunity to visit and accompany my students in the various health services.

My community outreach is still continuing. I am very involved in HIV/AIDS and sexuality training. I go to local schools, matric camps, youth groups and confirmation camps. I also train staff of NGO’S and CBO’s. I trained 90 per cent of the academic staff in various HIV/AIDS and sexuality issues, as these have to be integrated into mainstream curricula. I am the chairperson of the Western Cape regional nursing education association (NEA). I am really passionate about what I am doing.

I am continually confronted with shocking levels of ignorance about HIV/AIDS. Two very different examples from my experiences illustrate this.

First, in March, 2007, I was privileged to facilitate a workshop to 100 international students on HEI and HIV/AIDS. This stimulated a lot of debate and discussion. These students were from across the world, different universities and for many it was their first visit to a third world country! Our statistics of people living with HIV/AIDS in HEI shocked them out of their wits and they could not understand why ARV’s (anti-retroviral drugs) were not freely available. The ignorance of the international community of our reality, of the impact of the pandemic in our country, was striking.

The second example was during the same year, in November, when I was facilitator and presenter at a women’s conference in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This was an absolute mind boggling experience, as the communities’ knowledge was almost zero and very much in denial. Even the so-called “educated” women, including medical practitioners, were not clued up with latest statistics, treatments and protocols. One of the problems I faced was language as in Sri Lanka the mother tongue is either Tamil or Sinhalese. However, during the conference there was translating equipment for each of the 500 delegates, and in the villages I always had interpreters to work with. The major disappointment of my three week stint of community-based education came within my final week. I was interpreted as being HIV-Positive during one of my presentations. Immediately, I was told that my final workshop with a group of school children at an Anglican missionary school would be cancelled, as the Nuns and children are not prepared to face/deal with someone HIV-positive! Needless to say, I cried bitterly, because I could not understand how my status, whether positive or negative, could influence the good work that I was doing. I did not even try to defend myself, except that I did tell the women’s executive about my disappointment and that I am not HIV-positive. I challenged their attitudes and educated them on stigmatization! Beside that experience, for me the entire trip was an eye opener and a tremendous learning experience.

In conclusion, I will be forever grateful to my parents despite the very conservative upbringing, for the sound morals and values that they have instilled in me and for the Christian principles that I can still uphold today. My family and friends also played a big role in encouraging me through thick and thin, good and bad times. I thank God for all the skills and talents that he gave me and for making me the caring individual that I am.