In 2009, Melene Rossouw – a passionate woman with diverse interests in law, politics and serving humanity – qualified as an attorney. With ample experience working in the legal space, including the Constitutional Court, Melene founded a non-profit organisation, called Women Lead Movement, with the aim to promote a gender-equal society.
“Very interestingly, all the experience I’ve gained throughout my work in the legal and public sectors prepared me for my current journey,” she says. Now, Melene serves humanity not only through what she was taught at university and work, but with her heart, personality and character too.
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Delivering the Annual Cuthbert Crichton Lecture at Groote Schuur Hospital 2019. “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”.
A leader in the NGO sector
“I never really imagined working in the NGO sector. I also never knew that I would become an internationally recognised activist for gender rights and equality,”she says. For Melene, it has always been about justice, equality and fairness.
“When things are evidently unjust, it stirs deep emotions within me to a point where I can now speak my truth without fear, and [speak] on behalf of others who don’t have the courage to do the same,” she says. For Melene, it’s about having courage to challenge the status quo, irrespective of the consequences attached to it.
Melene has had the opportunity to further her education and work in places that have deepened her understanding of the challenges faced in SA. “I feel there is an added obligation on all of us as citizens to add our voice and take action when we see blatant injustice taking place,” she says.
Getting into law and the NGO sector
To become an attorney, you need a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B) degree. To obtain the degree, you need to study four to five years at any university, after which you’ll be required to complete two years of articles at a law firm and end off with board exams. Melene also did her Master of Laws (LL.M) in Public and Constitutional Law.
“My current industry is in the NGO space and the beauty of this sector is that it’s diverse in its reach. What I also love about the sector is that it allows you to create your own path based on your vision and mission,” she says. The industry has become more competitive than what it was 10 to 15 years ago. People as young as 14 have started their own non-profit organisations. “There are no set rules in terms of how to achieve your vision, but there is professional guidance,” she adds.
“The NGO sector also drastically professionalised over the last few year. You find many qualified professionals from a wide range of industries operating in the space,” adds Melene. If you have something you’re passionate about and you want to make an impact on humanity, you can start your own NGO, no matter how big or small.
Growth in the NGO sector
The NGO industry is diverse and graduates are spoilt for choice, depending on their personal and/or professional interests. Here are a few tips to get you started with your own NGO.
1/ Ensure you do thorough research on NGOs operating in your area of interest and make contact with them to find out if they have jobs or internships available.
2/ NGOs are always looking for fresh energy and ideas. “I personally believe in the power of interning/volunteering, because I got my first job as a result of interning at a law firm during university breaks.”
3/ Even when you have a full-time job, if you have the capacity, offer voluntary services to NGOs in your spare time.
Over the course of her life, Melene has been her own biggest supporter and critic. “There were many times when I didn’t feel competent in my work and I found it bizarre that my bosses would give me performance incentives for outstanding work,” she says. It’s possible to go through life thinking you are a failure, when in fact your success exceeded all your failures. Be kind to yourself.
Overcoming difficulties in industries
Women continue to face difficult times in terms of career growth. Why? Because most, if not all, industries are still male-dominated and women are still fighting wage inequality and promotions (even with the same level of education and experience).
According to Melene, the “Old Boys’ Club” still haunts corporate spaces, especially among the legal fraternity. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report 2018 revealed that South Africa still has a long way to go in closing the wage inequality gender gap. “As women, we must take it upon ourselves to fight this deeply entrenched unequal system as a collective and ensure that policies and action plans with targets are put in place to regulate wage inequality and the development and growth of women in the workplace,” she says.
An ode to your 21-year-old self
“Say YES!” she says. Melene is passionate about anything that has a positive impact on the world and its people. “In a world of negativity, we must bring hope and positivity in whatever shape or form. Even at a young age my gift was being able to motivate and encourage people (young and old) and make them feel good about themselves and their lives and that fulfilled me,” she says.
It’s clear to see that Melene is passionate about people and seeing them happy, succeeding and thriving. To her, saying yes is about saying yes to every opportunity for learning and development that comes your way. “It will add to your substance; build your character and resilience,” she says, adding that saying yes will influence your world ideology.
Pearls of wisdom
“Be fierce and persistent in your pursuits and unapologetic about your success,” she says. Melene emphasises the importance of being aware of your actions, or lack thereof, that will determine how fast or how slow you will achieve your hopes, dreams and aspirations. “Be radical, innovative, bold and revolutionary in your thoughts, words and actions and always remember, if men don’t want to create space for you at the table, bring your own table,” she says.
Books every woman should read…
Everyone has a different taste in books, but Melene’s preference are those she loved reading as a young woman. She has always leaned towards political, poetic, philosophical books or a good book by John Grisham. “These were the kind of books that gave me so much inspiration and excitement,” she says.
The two books every woman should get her hands on:
“Michelle, or FLOTUS (First Lady of the United States) as she is affectionately known, is one of the modern day role models for women and girls the world over. She’s the first black first lady of the USA. For me, the book is riddled with pearls of wisdom, especially around finding your voice and standing in your own authentic power,” says Melene.
“I loved the Eat Pray Love book and movie, because it deals with one woman’s quest to find peace, balance and healing after her divorce at a young age. What I loved the most was the rediscovery of the lead’s role,” she says.
The importance of self-care
Melene believes in the power of meditation and sleep. “When your body, brain and soul are tired, you won’t be creative or effective, so rest as much as you can,” she says. Another way she takes care of her body is by eating fruit and vegetables, drinking plenty of water with lemon and detoxing with herbal tea. A nice treat that Melene doesn’t compromise on is going for the occasional massage.
Connect with Melene…
Facebook WLM: @womenleadmovement