Rethabile Mashale

In a country like South Africa, where underprivileged black people, especially young black women are still for the most part excluded from quality STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) education, she is making incredible inroads to ensure that the girl child from disadvantaged communities also has an opportunity to sit at the table in traditionally privileged and male dominated STEM careers.

She proclaims that her personal vision is to help ensure “that every girl has equal opportunity to be a constructive citizen in a society that is safe, nurturing and where one’s sex, gender and race are no longer determining factors for salary scales, economic participation and personal agency.”

This week, YouthHubAfrica’s South African correspondent Gcobani Qambela, spoke with Rethabile Mashale, who is the Managing Director for the Cape Town based Thope Foundation which aims to support African girls to realise their potential in STEM education.

Q: Tell us a bit about yourself? 

photo 1A: I don’t know where to start the story but essentially, I was born in Germiston in 1984 and moved to Cape Town when I was two years old. Originally, my parents are from Matatiele in the Eastern Cape. In fact that is where home is. I still identify Matatiele as being my home. I have lived in Khayelitsha, Cape Town for nearly 28 years – a significant part of my life and probably will continue to live here for the next 30 or so years.

I was fortunate enough to be afforded the opportunity to attend two private schools in the early 1990s and completed high school in 2004. The value of this private education is that it allowed me several options to access institutions of higher education and bursaries linked to that. The standard of private education is far superior to what some of my peers in State schools walked away with. That to me is an injustice.

Through some engineering of fate, I enrolled into a Social Work degree at the University of Cape Town in 2005. I graduated with a Masters degree specialising in monitoring and evaluation in 2012. I am a mother of a very adventurous one year old and currently working to change the education landscape of young girls in Khayelitsha.

Q: What is the Thope Foundation?

A: Thope Foundation is a non-profit organisation that wants to address three keys areas, namely:

1) Mainstreaming African girls into previously male dominated fields such as science, engineering, technology and maths.

2) Leadership development through well designed projects that the girls can lead and can discover their own potential for leadership

3) Giving young girls a voice and creative expression within a well-defined life-skills program that empowers and changes negative narratives within main discourses that script images and entrench negative messages about black girls and their potential for excellence.

We tackle serious issues through the medium of technology and expression so that girls can find voice to share their discontent, narrate experiences that can be shared in the main media and bring the voices of girls into the development agenda. We offer tutoring, leadership development, life-skills and are really trying to work with the women in the lives of girls so we can start to engage the family as an agent of change.

We have learnt that each girl child has a close family relative, neighbour or guardian who is an ally for the girl child. We want to harness this social capital and give these adult women tools so they can be support networks for girls, be violence interceptors and support young girls’ agency.

We are a young organisation so we are making mistakes and are learning really fast about what works and what doesn’t.  If we can ensure that every girl who comes through our program completes primary school and then goes to a well performing high school and completes that, then we will have succeeded. We really want to catch the girls who the education system loses between primary and high school. We want to offer that safety net while driving a developmental agenda that is closely linked to women and girls empowerment.

Q: What have been some of the challenges faced?

A: If you have ever played the funding game, you will realise the major challenge of trying to raise funds for this type of work in this very soft economy. One of the hardest challenges has been justifying why we only work with girls: why we want to afford girls a chance instead of boys. Having to explain that it is not a binary, that working with girls is not for the underdevelopment of boys but rather bringing girls to the fore at the ‘boys’ table’ is really tiring.

The primary reason for this is that we know that girls provide a higher return on investment. International research shows that providing girls with an extra year of education boosts the eventual wages by 10% to 20%. Returns on investment for female secondary education are between the 15-25% range and that by increasing women’s secondary education by 1% boosts annual per capita income growth by 0.3% points in developing countries. We also know that when women gain four more years of education, fertility per woman drops by an estimated one birth and reduces child mortality by 5-10%. Women’s wages are well spent because they reinvest 90% of their income back into the household, whereas men reinvest only 30 to 40%. Yet we still have to answer this “why girls” question.

What it betrays is the assumptions and beliefs that people have about gender in this country and the world. There is a misdirected belief that we have reached gender parity in South Africa and the world and therefore equal investment is necessary for all genders. However, we seldom hear the same funders questioning the merits of an all-boys soccer league or sports programs that continue to exclude girls. So the work of shifting mindsets and really taking up advocacy work has become an integral part of our organisation that we hadn’t initially envisaged.  Of course, funding is a significant challenge and we continue to look for innovative ideas to mobilise resources to support our work.

Q: What have been some of the successes? 

A: Our biggest success to date has been ensuring that all of the 24 Grade 7 girls who were in our program in 2013 accessed better performing high schools. One of our girls managed to secure a full scholarship to one of the esteemed maths and science schools in Cape Town. That really excited us.

We managed to compile an educational career-inspired magazine that the girls contributed to. That was our first edition and really highlighted some of the critical issues that the girls are dealing with and that we need to tackle and be responsive to in our programs. There are many small victories that happen each day and we celebrate them as they happen.

Q: What is your vision for the foundation?

A: Our official vision for Thope Foundation is to drive change in transforming the lives of young girls through education. We really want to support girls realise their potential and we use education (particularly STEM education) as a vehicle to engage girls in more systemic social justice work.

My personal vision is that every girl has equal opportunity to be a constructive citizen in a society that is safe, nurturing and where ones sex, gender and race are no longer determining factors for salary scales, economic participation and personal agency.

Q: Where can people get hold of you? 

A: People interested in getting in touch with us can email us  or me directly We are on Facebook or follow and interact with us on twitter.

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Rotimi Olawale, co-founder of is a youth development expert. For more than six years he has been involved in leading youth advocacy efforts mainly around the Millennium Development Goals. In 2006, he represented Nigeria as a youth ambassador at the United Nations Global Youth Leadership Summit held at the UN Headquarters in New York. Rotimi has held several global leadership positions including; member, UNFPA Global Youth Advisory Panel for 2 years; member, African Youth Panel. Rotimi is currently involved in shaping local, national and global policies to benefit youth and also leverage opportunities for young people. He was listed by the Nigerian government as one of 15 Nigerian youth on the world stage in 2008.