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Soroptimists Celebrate 70 Years of Sisterhood

The country’s oldest branch of a little-known international women’s service club, the Soroptimists, celebrates its 70th anniversary in Wellington this Sunday (Nov 22 2009).

Over the years, Soroptimist International Wellington has been working hard without fanfare to raise funds for hundreds of causes that assist the plight of women all over the globe.

Soroptimist International – whose name originates from the Latin words ‘soror’ meaning sister and ‘optima’ meaning best, and loosely translates as "best for women" – was founded in 1921 in California, America and now has 93,000 members in 3,000 clubs in 125 countries.

Members help to raise the status of women and to advance human rights for all and promote equality, development and peace. Chosen projects must meet the criteria of helping women move from crisis or poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.

To that end, for the past seven decades a group of Wellington women have quietly got on with the job of raising funds and helping the status of women. Their names and faces may have changed over the years but their dedication to improving the lives of other women has remained constant.

Current president Catherine O’Donnell says the lack of awareness of Soroptimism and its work doesn’t dampen the spirits of members.

“It’s true that a lot of people know about the Lions, Probus and the Country Women’s Institute but few people know about us. But that doesn’t deter us, we just get on and do the job.”

This Sunday (November 22) past and present members and supporters will mark their platinum anniversary with a lunch at The Pines in Houghton Bay.

Catherine says the event will be modest – they leave pomp and circumstance to others – but it will be the opportunity to recognise the significant contributions made since 1939.

“We have got some very special guests coming, including the President of Soroptimist International of the South West Pacific and the New Zealand President elect to the Federation. We will also have several guests from Sakai in Japan, which also happens to be Wellington’s sister city.”

Over the years, the Wellington Club has raised funds for international causes such as: helping girls into school in Pakistan; assisting former sex slaves in Thailand learn new skills; providing women survivors of war in Afghanistan; Rwanda and Bosnia with tools and resources; providing Cambodian women with better education and health services; and, protecting pregnant women and children in Africa against malaria.

Local causes have included helping with remedial reading at Wellington High School; education prizes to teenage parents at He Huaraki Tamariki school in Porirua; a scholarship for women to obtain educational qualifications to re-enter the workforce; and the acquisition of equipment for Kimi Ora School.

As the list demonstrates, education is a particular Soroptimist interest and they follow the quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "Educate a man, you educate a person; educate a woman, you educate a nation."

Fundraising, though important, is only part of what they do, however.

"We are a service organisation. Soroptimist International has consultative status at the United Nations, so we try to influence policy at the highest level."

Locally, the club is active as a pressure group, lobbying councils and MPs on issues affecting women.

“As a group, we are in the privileged situation of being able to help others who don’t enjoy the education and resources we have had access to. We aim to make life less difficult for women and children, and therefore whole communities.”

As the Wellington Soroptimists celebrate their platinum anniversary, one thing is sure –these women will get things done and make a difference, and plan to do so for at least another 70 years.


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