Samantha Willan relaxing at home with her children
Rosa and Zakes.

Women and girl power are not just words for Ms Samantha Willan, they are a catalyst for changing the realities of poverty, inequality and injustice women face daily.

Through her position as Programme Manager of HEARD’s Gender Equality and HIV Prevention Programme, and an independent consultant on sexuality, gender equality and HIV/AIDS, her passion for creating a dialogue in communities to enhance awareness around these issues is her contribution towards inspiring change.

As an academic, Willan focuses on gender equality, sexuality and HIV/AIDS. Her responsibility as a community member motivated her to establish the Child Friendly City Campaign which encourages the community of Glenwood to return to public spaces. As a woman she is a wife and a great mother to her son Zakes (5) and daughter Rosa (6). 

While this delicate juggling act might seem impossible for some, it is all in a day’s work for Willan who believes that it is important to be an active community member and leader.

‘Most of my work involves building women and girls power and resilience so they can become economically and emotionally independent,’ said Willan.  ‘My aim is also to create spaces for women and girls to explore their situations and identify strategies to improve their lives. Much of my work is in communities with women and girls. I believe that change starts on the ground and by facilitating conversations and dialogues and holding participatory workshops we create spaces for change to happen in communities.’

Her work at UKZN’s Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division (HEARD) brings her face to face with gender stereotypes and the risk and impact of the HIV epidemic on women’s and girls’ lives. She is currently involved in various projects that aim to combat these social ills, including an inception phase project looking at a “parenting intervention”.

‘This project aims to reduce HIV risk, especially for women and girls, through supporting parents with young babies to improve their parenting skills. The project includes topics such as: encouraging attachment to the primary caregiver, and reducing gender inequality through challenging harmful gender stereotypes,’ said Willan.

‘This project is particularly exciting for me as it is an innovative way to build new relationships between children and their parents. We believe this will carry through into improved relationships later in life and reduce girls’ risks of experiencing gender-based violence, and boys likelihood of perpetrating violence. And of course this work talks to me as a mother of young children.’

Another exciting project Willan is involved in is a 12-week training programme which works to reduce women’s experiences of gender-based violence (whether it be sexual, physical, emotional or financial) and men’s perpetration of such violence. This is done through a participatory project called Stepping Stones and Creating Futures, where participants develop heightened awareness of, and skills around, improving gender equality and securing their livelihoods.

To keep her sanity in the daily busyness of life she enjoys yoga, photography, the sunshine, beaches and parks, often accompanied by her energetic youngsters.

Although, Willan keeps her personal life and work separate she does incorporate the lessons she learns at work into the values she teaches her children.

‘We try to raise our children in keeping with our values around gender equality, social justice, non-racism and non-homophobia – and it is so rewarding to see our children practicing these values when playing imaginary games or chatting to their friends.

‘Keeping “a healthy balance between work and life” is a daily challenge however, and I think part of the way to do it is to ensure there’s time “just for me” – which not always easy to achieve – and also to integrate life and work wherever possible,’ said Willan.

We can all make a difference in our own small way – both in how we live our lives and how we engage in our communities. These are goals Samantha Willan turns into action to inspire us all.