South African student pledges social justice through Free the Girls

May 10, 2013 | News, UToday
By Casey Cheap

Much like Jim Crow laws in the post-Civil War South, growing up under Apartheid in South Africa meant living with extreme racism up until the 1990s, recalls University of Toledo student Natasha Smet.



She remembers boys were always free to have more fun than girls.

Under the discriminative Apartheid system, she and her family were reduced to second-class citizens because they are Indian. Until Apartheid fell in 1994, only a small, ruling white minority of the population had full citizenship and rights under South African law.

“One day I went to school and some of the students were standing on their chairs and chanting a song I was not familiar with,” Smet said. “It turned out that was the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison.”

Leading up to that moment, Smet said she never questioned why she could not go to the same school as white students or the same public swimming pools.

“Nuns had been sneaking non-white students into the school I attended,” Smet said. “The day Mandela was released, the Apartheid talk with my parents was a rude awakening.”

Smet was one of just a handful of minority students enrolled the first year South African schools were open to non-whites, and the transition was a difficult one.

In recognition of her experiences and the continued struggles of the region, the occupational therapy graduate student pioneered a Denver-based charity in Toledo called Free the Girls to allow women in Mozambique to buy their freedom.

When she was 19, she came to the United States. After earning her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy from Mount Mary College in Milwaukee, Smet arrived in Toledo and started collecting gently used bras to be donated to women in Mozambique through the Free the Girls program.

With just one of these bras — considered a luxury item — women in impoverished Mozambique can buy their freedom, Smet said. The program helps women who have been exploited through prostitution and sex trafficking earn a living by selling bras in the second-hand clothing market. Smet has collected 176 bras to date.

“It sounds very cliché, but when I arrived in the United States, I only had $200, a suitcase and a ridiculous drive to succeed,” Smet said. “I think that occupational therapy is the ultimate social justice profession. We give people the tools to help themselves; we give a hand up, not a hand out.”

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