Girl power since 1927: how Croydon Soroptimists work to transform the lives of women

By - Thursday 21st August, 2014

Croydon Soroptimists has been going strong since its first meeting in 1927. Vice President and Communications Officer Carol Hunt explains why

Image by Soroptimist International Croydon branch, used with permission

The Croydon Heritage Festival 2014 seemed the perfect place to promote Soroptimist International Croydon and District. The club after all has been going since 1927 when it first met in Grants department store, Croydon. Grants of course is no longer there but Croydon Soroptimists is still going strong. I’m a relatively new member and have to ask myself sometimes – why?

Soroptimist International is a global organisation of professional women. Its goal is to transform the lives of women and girls: around 80,000 members in local branches in 130 countries and territories give their time and effort to promote women and girls’ education, equip them participate in leadership, improve health services available to them and raise awareness of the problems many still face as a result of gender inequality.

This year we are excited to be celebrating the 80th anniversary of Soroptimist International Great Britain and Ireland (SIGBI).  Although 80 years have passed, today’s members are still passionate about the same goal: working to achieve equal rights through the education, empowerment and enabling of women.

You can see this passion expressed here in Croydon, as members have recently held events to raise awareness of ovarian and bowel cancer, sponsored a public speaking competition for Year 6 girls (aged 10 and 11) called ‘Loud and Proud‘, and organised a ‘bagathon’ (bag-donating scheme) to raise money to make childbirth safer for women in the Gambia. You can read more about the movement’s global impact here.

To help prepare for the heritage fair, I went along to the archives in Croydon library. Trawling through boxes of our local club history for the first time, I got a real sense of belonging to a long line of women who were perhaps similar to me. They clearly had a social conscience, activist tendencies, got the job done and were great team players. Sadly, of course, many of those women have now died and I felt a curious commitment to help continue their work.

Soroptimist International is committed to a world where women and girls together achieve their individual and collective potential, realise aspirations and have an equal voice in creating strong, peaceful communities worldwide. I then have to ask myself why I belong to an organisation which is so gender-biased.

To the woman who told me that equality is won, I say no – there is much more to be done

Being a soroptimist does not mean that I don’t care about men. I care about all people – but I am a survivor of domestic violence which began when I was just sixteen. This traumatic experience has translated into empathy for women who are living under oppressive regimes and within repressive cultures. The most effective way to combat this is through education – so it’s no coincidence that I belong to this organisation whose aim is to “Enable, Empower and Educate” women across the globe.

Sisters ringing on their own bells: a Croydon Soroptimist spreads the word in North End.
Photo by Carol Hunt, used with permission.

We certainly had a few interesting visitors to our stall in North End. One was a man who told us we are “against everything he believed” and another a woman who said something like “equality, that’s all been done”. People certainly present a stark contrast of opinions! My response would be yes, some women of course experience equality to some extent – but some clearly do not. There is a lot more work to be done.

This brings me to my very favourite author, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose testimony gives me more than enough reasons to be a soroptimist. Hirsi Ali recognises that Western women have power and are firmly established in the work-place with the right to vote. She now calls upon us to make time for the vital issues affecting others: women suffering female genital mutilation (FGM), women who are at risk of being murdered because of their Western lifestyle, women who need permission to leave the house and those who are traded without any regard to their wishes. Shockingly, such things are happening not just far away but on our own doorstep.

Hirsi Ali reminds us of how many women and girls each year lose their lives as a result of violence or neglect because of their sex. Female babies and young girls die disproportionately from neglect. There is a brutal international sex trade in young girls in many parts of the world. Roughly 600,000 women die giving birth every year and domestic violence is a killer of women in every country on the globe. I would say to the lady who visited our stall that, actually, we don’t yet have the luxury to sit back and say that “equality has been done”.

With other activists I can do more than I could on my own

Recently, I was privileged to be a part of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, held at ExCeL London from 10th–13th June 2014, where soroptimists generated significant awareness through their information stand. The stand attracted some high-profile visitors, including then-UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, who described soroptimists as a “formidable force”, and Hollywood A List actor Angelina Jolie, who visited our stand twice and spent ten minutes talking to soroptimists.

By joining with other activists I can make a bigger difference than I could on my own. I am certainly proud to be a part of an organisation described as a “formidable force” – and nothing less than formidable force is going to redress the imbalance of power between men and women.

Hopefully, by setting women free from oppression and creating a-dominated culture, the world will be safer for men and women to live in. There will be more chance of peace for our children and our children’s children and the work of those who have gone before us will not have been wasted.

Instead of asking the question: “Why am I a soroptimist?” I now ask: “How could I not be?”

If you are interested in joining Soroptimist International Croydon and District please email us or to find out more, visit our website.

Carol Hunt

Carol Hunt

I have lived in and around Croydon all my life and went to Selhurst Grammar School for Girls. I am married and have three wonderful children and two grandchildren who are all living locally. I have just completed an honours degree in Social Science which has strengthened my interest in international development. My career started late as a charity fundraiser and I am now South East Regional Fundraising Manager at Cystic Fibrosis Trust. I joined Soroptimist International Croydon and District in 2012 and am enjoying my role as communication officer

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  • Sean Creighton

    A former President of Soroptimist the International
    organisation was Kathleen Mary Halpin (1903-1999). Working on the ‘Architect’s Journal’ in the
    1920s she developed an interest in social housing, which led on to her founding
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    Wandsworth . She became involved in the London National Society for Women’s
    Service which became the Fawcett Society. She was private secretary to Sir John Simon, the Foreign Secretary, then Organising
    Secretary of the Women’s Gas Council from 1935, then helped organise the Women’s Voluntary Service created in 1938. After the War she worked with
    United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association for Refugees. She was Fawcett
    Society Chair 1967-1971 and a Friend and a Trustee of the Fawcett Library. The
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