In October 2015, the streets of South Africa vibrated with the collective voices of the nation’s youth. A student led protest movement of thousands, the Fees Must Fall marches were a response to a proposed increase in university fees, and broader socio-economic and inequality issues. Many saw the events as the awakening of a South African fighting spirit that long lay dormant. Had she been in the country, Ezlyn Barends would have been by the students’ side.
“I wasn’t here,” She shakes her head, the frustration at her own absence evident in her voice. Watching the historic event unfold through the news, one poster carried by a participant took hold in her head and fixed itself there. It read: I’m not afraid of being jailed. I am afraid of being uneducated. For the impact entrepreneur, it hit home. “Education is freedom, it is the most basic right,” she says. “But we’re a nation of activists. We don’t take anything lying down.”
She certainly doesn’t. Ezlyn is the founder of DreamGirls South Africa, a network of young female professionals who mentor teenage girls to become successful in their pursuit of higher education. In South Africa, a range of barriers affects access to education for girls in poor communities, and Ezlyn is working to remove those she can. “Investing in girls is so important,” she explains. “Educated women are more likely to ensure that their children go to school, to raise healthy families. There is a clear link between educated girls and a country’s economic prosperity.”
Initially embarking upon a career in marketing, she was plagued by the unrelenting sense that her purpose lay elsewhere. Born into a family of educators and philanthropists, teaching and the development of young people was always been a part of her life. Armed with the courage to heed to the call, she redirected her life and dedicated herself full time to the upliftment of South Africa’s youth through education.
Through DreamGirls, Ezlyn and her team tutor, mentor, and assist girls across the country, with a goal of seeing them accepted to tertiary institutions. There is also a focus upon character development, encouraging them to give back and contribute to their communities. This focused attention at what is a crucial time for the girls’ development is how DreamGirls is empowering a generation of women to claim their agency and to dream bigger.
Seated below a projected image of herself three times her size, Ezlyn’s portrait shoot becomes a literal interpretation of her work. She is imagined envisioning her upliftment through education. It speaks of a woman whose choice to uplift others has consequently uplifted her; whose focus and commitment has shaped a life of purpose. She is woman of action. “I’ve always believed if it’s terrifying, do it,” she confirms. “Find the courage to live the life that you are supposed to.”