Empowering refugee women in South Africa


“When refugee women enter South Africa, many don’t know how to speak English or have a place to go for assistance. They are unable to provide for their children and cannot sustain themselves,” Kave Bulambo, Director and Founder of Women Across Borders told ABN Ditigal in an exclusive interview. 

Bulambo initially started the organisation in 2008 as a means to address the xenophobic attacks that were targeted towards refugees and foreign nationals living in South Africa.

However, she realised that these refugees, especially women, were in dire need of an organisation that would have a direct impact on changing their lives.


According to research in South Africa, increased unemployment, economic inequality, xenophobia and poverty has the most severe impact on refugee women as they are unable to protect themselves from these issues physically, socially or legally.

Refugee women are amongst the low skilled, low income earners in the country and are usually part of the flexible part time labour pool that can easily be let go of in times of economic crises.

“We therefore decided to legally register Women Across Borders and create programs that will enable refugee women to be self-sustainable,” said Bulambo.

She explained that their first program focuses on adult literacy, where they teach refugee women how to read, write and speak English.

“English is the main language of communication in South Africa. If you don’t know how to speak English, then I don’t know how you can actually get around or even make a living,” exclaimed Bulambo.

Their second program is called the skills development project which targets refugee women that are unable to find work and equips them with the necessary skills to start up their own businesses.

“We teach refugee women how to sew, knit, and bake or anything that they can do with their hands so that they are able to make a living,” she explained.

Stemming off this project is a new program called Second Chance at Life where funds are raised in order to provide start up loans to refugee women so they can open up small businesses.

Like many grass root organisations however Women Across Borders has not been receiving sufficient funding, especially from South African listed companies.

Bulambo believes this could be due to the policy of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) which encourages private companies to employ non-white South Africans. Refugees and foreign nationals do not fit the BEE category.

“We haven’t had any companies approach us to get involved in our projects and I specifically believe it’s because of the beneficiaries that we reach, which are refugee women,” she added.

Bulambo pointed out that most businesses would only approach non-profit organisations if the relationship could potentially be strategically beneficial to the company’s goals.

“You find that businesses will only approach your organisation if they know they will get something out of it. If there’s nothing, there’s a high chance that they won’t be interested in what you do,” she said.

Currently, Women Across Borders only receives funding from other more established grass root organisations. They are based in Durban and are only able to cater to refugee women in the Kwa-Zulu Natal region.

Bulambo wishes to expand the organisation into other provinces within South Africa once they receive sufficient financial backing.