I have purchased The Big Issue every month that I have lived in Cape Town, going on three years now. The reasons why I do so are numerous, but mostly to do with the fact that it is a small price to pay for a quality product which is helping someone out there feed a family or pay their children’s school fees. My Social Development class got the chance to visit The Big Issue in order to learn about socio-economic development initiatives which are actually working and why.
The Managing Director, Trudy Vlok, was a warm and welcoming presence in the board room, where she exclaimed that she was so happy to see so many women amongst us. Ah, a kindred spirit! She told us quite a lot about the magazine, from its beginnings, its principles and its inner workings; a rare, but valuable experience I must say. What I was particularly pleased about was the fact that 40% of The Big Issue vendors are women.
However, this is not a simple statistic when you understand the significance of such a number. Firstly, this is one of the highest figures for all street papers around the world. Secondly, getting women to sign up as a Big Issue vendor was not an easy feat. Trudy explained that they had to make it an active and dedicated project within the company. They had to first overcome a number of cultural and social barriers before women would start working there. This involved tackling issues such as safety, child care, discrimination, lack of respect and various other related barriers. Mostly, I think they had to tackle a mind-set which believed that women had no place selling magazines on the streets.
But Trudy is evidently pleased with the results. What makes The Big Issue work is that they have not forgotten the context within which women live and work. They have specific services offered to women, such as paying for crèche facilities, social worker assistance and workshops on life skills and gender-related issues. They tackle, along with the women themselves, issues of abuse and lack of respect. They ask CID (City Improvement District) guards to keep a watch on women when they are at their pitches. The health and well-being of the women are evidently of concern.
For me, The Big Issue is an example of an initiative which clearly understands how much it takes to develop people. It’s not a simple process of giving magazines to people and sending them onto the streets to make a living. They understand that poverty is more complex than not having enough money; it’s also related to inequality, gender discrimination and lack of opportunities. Poverty is not simply overcome by giving people a job, but also needs to address the many obstacles people face in their day-to-day lives. Holistic and people-centred development requires empathy and commitment, which Trudy and the rest of The Big Issue team have plenty of.
More and more, development thinkers are seeing that having basic commodities are not enough for a good quality of life. Happiness is not contained in the number of rands in your bank account, even if it goes a long way in helping you to overcome your hunger. Development is now about participation in social and political life. Self-determination, self-respect and equal rights are what helps the women of The Big Issue succeed. It’s all there in the Constitution, now we just need more development initiatives which actually implement it.