Fighting gender-based violence with South African Hero Nearby – Risha Patak-Harie

With a smile that explodes across her face and the kind of positive energy that makes you think anything is possible, Risha Patak Harie tells me the story of her grassroots venture,  i-LEAD. Their motto:  Be Safe. Be strong. Be fabulous, hints at I-LEAD’s mission-to make a real difference in fighting violence against women in South Africa. Risha and her team at i-LEAD have developed a self-defense system for woman and children that aims to prepare us mentally and physically so that if attacked, we have a fighting chance to get to safety. Sounds pretty fabulous so far!

Based in Johannesburg, South Africa, i-LEAD travels the country with their “mobile dojo” offering free self-defense courses for women from all walks of life. In a country with the highest rape statistics in the world and unacceptably high levels of violent crime against women and girls, the fear of violent crime affects many women’s ability to engage in daily activities. i-LEAD is here to put a stop to that.

From Victim to Leader

The catalyst for the foundation of i-LEAD is unconventional, as Risha says, ‘In 2012, I experienced a near grabbing incident in central Johannesburg, and was able to defend myself and get to safety. The reality is that if I was unable to fight back, I would have been kidnapped. It was through this experience that the i-LEAD Self Defense system was created. There is an absolute need for every women and child to know how to protect themselves and i-LEAD is here to fill that gap. “   

A fighting chance

Born and raised in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and with a background in IT and Corporate Business, she was able to fight back because of her long standing training in Martial arts. It saved her life that day. Turning a horrific experience into a force for good is what makes Risha a hero. Using her skills, working quietly and steadily to improve the lives of other, she embodies the human values of helpfulness, responsibility and family security.

Of her martial arts training she says, “I have always had an interest in martial arts. At the age of 6 I started learning a traditional form of karate called Kyokushinkai. After achieving a first Dan black belt, I then went on to study the Art of Samurai and next Muay Thai fighting. Learning these art forms had more to do with understanding the discipline rather than becoming competitive at a sport. The end goal was always to be in a better position to protect myself. More recently, I have been studying with Johann Haywood of Combat Training Academy focusing on hand-to-hand combat and gun & knife weapons defense. “ 

Changing the narrative

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i-LEAD began, in 2012, as a community outreach program offering safety awareness and self- defense training at no cost to survivors of human trafficking and domestic / gender based violence. Today, i-LEAD are an established social organization, empowering women and children in SA through self-defense, life skills, access to education and building of job skills. 

“The nature of our business involves finding innovative methods to deliver a significant and lasting social impact, that is, helping to change the narrative on violence against women and children. Our research is ongoing and we work daily to better our training delivery methods, find new partners or donors to assist with funding, and most important is the ability to offer a complete empowerment program to women and children.”

A typical work day includes workshops at women’s shelters, outlying rural areas, universities, corporate wellness days or even a privately hosted self-defense party. 

Risha channels her amazing energy into i-LEAD daily with the support of her family. She faces many challenges and says of her work, “The impact of a crime or abuse on a person’s life is not something you get accustomed to. It is challenging at times to come to terms with the unfortunate realism of the world. However, we use these experiences to identify gaps and significant areas where i-LEAD can offer more assistance in empowering our students.” 

Hero Organisation

“i-LEAD is all about community and that is why we love and support Heroes Nearby,” says Risha, “Our organization was built upon leveraging community involvement to run campaigns, host workshops, marketing and basically ensuring that we can offer these services to women and kids most in need at no cost.  Over the years we have formed numerous partnerships and are always looking at additional partners to assist the community.”

“We are in awe of the Heroes Nearby Initiative. It is inspiring to see the power of technology and its ability to connect, uplift and build communities. For us, this enables the perfect platform to connect with organizations and individuals nearby also working toward preventing violence. What we love about the application is that anyone can be a Hero and that in itself sends a very important message. We are thrilled and cannot wait for our City of Heroes to unlock! “

Some of i-LEAD’s local community heroes and potential Heroes Nearby Organisations are:

Dr. Tholsia Naidoo (Institute for Quality) – who has fully sponsored free education to numerous survivors of human trafficking, as well as post-schooling internships to severely intellectually challenged scholars that we work with.

Hemal Nana (Penguin Yoga) – who offers his time voluntarily teaching our participants breathing techniques and how to maintain control in life or death situations.

Johann Haywood (Tactical Combat Institute) – who brings years of practical anti-violence experience to the program and contributes his time voluntarily to i-LEAD.

Nadine Hardy Petzer (NuSeed) – who has generously sponsored her venue for workshops as well as healthy treats for the workshops.

Henry Mwale (Top Media) – is an absolute hero for facilitating and motivating for Train-the-Trainer programs within his community.

Riona Patak (i-LEAD) – Riona manages i-LEAD’s KZN operations and is our hero for volunteering her time to teaching women and children how to feel safer.

Sam Barale (Muldersdrift CPF) – who is a pillar of strength within the Muldersdrift community.  

Renee Patak – brand ambassador who also generously sponsors training workshops and even self-defense equipment for women’s shelters that we work with

The advice she has to give young South Africans today is, like her, inspiring: “You truly have the power to stand up and make a difference. Every day I meet vibrant young South Africans who are inspired and driven to change their communities for the better. Whatever your cause, do not get weighed down in negativity, keep moving forward. Count every failure, learn from it, and one day WE WILL change the world.“


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i-LEAD’s Train-the-trainer programs have also lent to building and strengthening relationships within communities. We’ve seen an increase in workshop participants and these numbers alone show how women are gearing up to protect themselves. It is an interesting time in the fight against violence on women. Women and men are standing together and demanding their voices be heard. There is definitely an increase in availability of support groups via social media. A fire has ignited within women in our country and we see anti-violence campaigns gaining traction. Last year i-LEAD proudly supported the #TotalShutdown movement where women marched across the country in solidarity against gender based violence.”

Safety Tips

Awareness is the most important tip according to Risha! “The more aware you are, the less opportunity anyone has to surprise you. If you are attacked, be vocal. Use your voice to alert others about your situation. There are numerous reasons why someone would scream, from falling to a kidnapping. If you are shouting out “help”, “leave me alone”, “stay away”, “no”, “call the police” or any other action, you increase the attention placed on you and the attacker. Keep all valuables out of sight and do not use earphones as this prevents you from hearing someone approach. And lastly, have a mobile panic button application, like Heroes Nearby installed to get help fast.“

Safe, Strong and Fabulous

Those are the words she lives by. “We are strong emotionally and physically. By learning self- defense life skills you again prepare yourself to handle most situations. This awareness will help prevent an attack and keep you safe. And, often times we find the need to alter ourselves to accommodate a person or a situation. There is no need to change who you are. Stay true to you and be fabulous. “And that is the essence of South African Hero Risha Patak Harie. She IS strong and safe and fabulous, changing people’s lives, one self-defense move at a time.

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By Merryn Wainwright