Before I began to write this second and last President’s Speech, I went back to the talk I gave in Florence, where I first presented my biennium theme and explained why I had chosen the particular slogan:
We Stand up for Women
It was and is my view that women’s rights need to be defended now more than ever. I made it very clear that any violation of women’s rights is not acceptable: not only in the physical sense, but also in the sense of infringing on basic human rights. This includes the right to education, equal pay, justice or simply the right to finish a sentence!
I have spent the past 18 months sharing my message with many Soroptimists throughout Europe and Africa. Sometimes I felt like an itinerant preacher ….
I am very happy that so many Soroptimists have embraced my theme because it embodies what we aspire to be: ‘A global voice for women’. If we want to sharpen our identity, we must distinguish ourselves from other organizations, especially charities. It must be clear what we stand for! Soroptimists are enablers, beacons for all women.
This is demonstrated by all the wonderful and excellent projects that were realized throughout the entire Federation focusing on women’s rights and the constant battle against gender-based violence. You make me proud to be your President!
One of the visions I outlined two years ago was to strengthen Advocacy on Federation level and to bring it closer to the Unions. Today I am pleased to say that the effort was worth it:
The 16 days of activism were initiated in 1991 by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership. Then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched ‘UNiTE to End Violence against Women’ in 2008, now promoted by UN Women. Both these movements have inspired more and more Soroptimist Unions and Clubs to action. All together they have significantly contributed to raising awareness of 25th November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women.
This year, SIE held the first Training for Advocacy Coordinators and the outcome of this pilot is very encouraging. Only a few weeks after their workshop, the advocacy coordinators initiated a campaign, built on an idea of Polish Soroptimists, to encourage women to participate in the EU elections and especially to get young women to register to vote for the first time.
One of the major challenges we are facing is our ageing membership and the constant loss of members. Yes, we are still losing members; in the last 5 years 3.5%.
There are various ways to address this challenge:
For one, we have to consider the lifestyle of the younger generation. While attending a monthly club meeting might be important for our generation, it may not be a priority for millennials. So, we must be open to new ways to ‘meet’, namely virtually.
Although we are still in the process of discussing and evaluating the pros and cons, we are pleased to see that many Unions are showing an interest, and some have already committed to offering this new kind of membership.
Recruiting new members is only one aspect of securing or growing our organization; we also need to ask ourselves: why are we losing active members?
Let me come back to the membership survey conducted in 2014. I am convinced that the result is today as valid as it was then: an average of 47% of members indicated that conflict within their club was the reason for leaving.
During the past 18 months I saw this conflict on all levels: Clubs, Unions and Federation. Apart from the effect on numbers, this negative atmosphere and lack of tolerance impact in other ways: Clubs and Unions have difficulties finding members willing to take responsibility for Board positions. I often heard the remark, ‘Why should I volunteer for an office, dedicate my time and energy, just to be criticized by the others?
We stand up for Women
Do we as Soroptimists always stand up for Women?
Some of you may have already heard the quote from Human Rights Lawyer and Feminist Amal Clooney, but it cannot be repeated enough:
“The worst thing that we can do as women is not stand up for each other, and this is something we can practice every day, no matter where we are and what we do
— women sticking up for other women, choosing to protect and celebrate each other instead of competing or criticizing one another.”
A good way to stand up for women and to show our active support for each other is mentoring. We can be very proud of what the Federation has achieved so far: the formation of a task force and the introduction of a handbook. Now we are in the phase of rollout.
Networking is another key element, and you will shortly hear about our newest tool: the ‘Soroptimist Entrepreneur Website’,
which will help you find Soroptimists managing all kind of businesses! And it is excellent for branding!
Two years ago, I announced that special attention will be given to the revival of the Soroptimist spirit in Eastern Europe, and a special task force was established for this purpose. You heard about their activities, and I am pleased that President Elect Anna will continue these efforts.
I have been honest about my disappointment that the introduction of the new Constitutions and By-Laws is taking longer that expected. The various reasons for this delay have been communicated, and I will not dwell on them today.
However, the work undertaken by our Unions to comment on the proposed drafts is impressive and welcome. I look forward to the discussion that will now follow. The C&BLC will consider the comments made and ensure that you receive the proposals by the end of June, in time for scrutiny before the voting at the next GM.
Giving the same rights to all Soroptimists has been another top priority on my agenda, and not unexpectedly this cannot be done overnight. Not all members in Single Clubs recognize this necessity. However, as an organization we must find solutions to ensure same rights for all, including the right to run for Federation offices.
Finally, we should not forget that communication is key to bring our ideas, tools, projects and services to you, Unions and Single Clubs! Without a professional communications team all our efforts would be almost in vain, and I am very thankful that we can count on the support of an experienced and dedicated team!
Yesterday, you heard firsthand from our SI Directors about the highly probable founding of the 5th Federation. This means that approximately 1100 members will leave SIE to form their own Soroptimist International African Federation, known as SIAF.
Losing such a block of members is sad enough. But the new Federation also means saying goodbye to those dear sisters we have come to know and appreciate for so many years. Meeting each other will not be as easy as it used to be, and SIE will also lose a bit of our cultural diversity with their departure!
Through Project Matching we will work to ensure that joint projects continue, and new ones started. The Roswitha Ott Fund will continue its great work, SIAF will give Roswitha an even larger area to operate! In any case, dear African Sisters, on behalf of the Federation I wish you the best of luck for your future endeavor!
The biennium is not over yet and there are many things that need to be completed. In September, we will have a workshop for Eastern European Clubs, and for the third time, we will invite incoming Union Presidents to attend a workshop.
Nevertheless, I would like to take the opportunity today to thank all members of the enlarged Board for their contribution in this biennium. A special thank you goes to the members of the so-called Restricted Board and the Restricted Board plus, for their ongoing commitment.
Until now, we had no less than 19 Board Meetings, 7 of which were face-to-face meetings. Without your hard work, time and dedication, all of the achievements to date would not have been possible.
I would also like to express my gratitude to the staff at SIEHQ for their untiring support. The Federation cannot function without a strong and committed team behind the Board of volunteers.
We have made a big step forward, and I am very happy and thankful that my successor Anna will continue to further the many issues that have inspired Unions and Clubs in this biennium. This continuity is crucial for our success and progress!
We will continue to stand up for Women!
SIE President Renata Trotmmann Probst