Wearing People’s Suffering

Her shining eyes beckoned and spoke of stories untold, her voice wrapped in love as she showed me the embroidered scarves her women had made. Opening the book she carried with her, she showed me their faces and the 100 year old loom they used to turn the stands into fabric. I listened, mesmerized, as Nasreen Sheikh told of how she spent her childhood in a tiny room with other girls, forced to spend their days sewing clothing for the garment fashion industry of the West. Her only bed at night was the clothes she was working on and she would often wonder who would wear these clothes someday.

Nasreen was able to eventually escape. She now spends her days tirelessly working so that other Nepali women and girls do not have to go through what she did. She started Local Women’s Handicrafts in Kathmandu, operating on Fair Trade Principles before she even knew Fair Trade was an thing.

As we talked, she mentioned how she had been to Walmart a few days back because she needed to pick something up for her travels and she lamented because the experience was painful for her. She saw a $3 t-shirt. “How can there be a $3 t-shirt,” she asked? I’ll never forget her response to her own question, “We are wearing people’s suffering!”

This tiny, uneducated woman from Nepal who doesn’t even know her own birthday is by far wiser than most people I run into these days. She inspires me to keep spending myself so that women and children around the world can live in freedom. She reminds me to consume less, and when I must buy, to buy carefully. She proves that women have what it takes to change the world.

Five years ago today, the world watched in horror as Rana Plaza collapsed, trapping and killing more than 1,000 garment factory workers in Savar, Bangladesh. Nasreen’s words are like a gentle scarf around my shoulders today and the words hit home. “We are wearing people’s suffering.”

I sit in that lament and hold it tight. I check the labels on my clothing. Top shirt – made in India. Undershirt – made in Bangladesh. Jeans – made in Jordan. I’m wrapped in a connection to these places.

While fair trade or suffering-free clothing is becoming more and more available, for the most part, here in the West, we wear people’s suffering. Let’s be more aware. Let’s own it and then do what we can to change it. Like Nasreen, let’s replace suffering with dignity.

Press for Progress

This is Chonda. The real deal. Not an actor paid to play the part. She is the heart and soul of a change that is gaining momentum in Bangladesh. Her face will tell you a story, if you take the time to let it capture you.

Nestled across the river from the Sundarbans, the world’s largest coastal mangrove forest and home to the Bengal Tiger, is the small village where Chonda and her husband Rabindranath have made their home. For years, Rabindranath caught larvae from the river and sold it in the market to support his family. If he caught enough, the family ate well. If not, they were hungry. When the Bangladesh Forest Department banned the taking of natural resources from the Sundarban as part of a conservation program, Rabindranath had no choice but to become a day laborer. Now, instead of being at the mercy of nature, he is at the mercy of local employers who may or may not need temporary help.

Chonda longed to do something to help. As a woman in a conservative Hindu village, she was not allowed to become a day laborer and no local shops would hire women either. She dreamed of starting a small business in her home but lacked the capital to do so. Then one day she heard about Hathay Bunano, which means handmade in Bangla. Hathay Bunano had started a work center near her, where other women gathered daily to knit and crochet  soft and colorful Pebble toys. Robindranath agreed that Chonda could take the training. During her training, she not only learned how to knit and crochet, she also learned the values of Fair Trade, as well as her value as a woman deserving of equal opportunity. For three years now, she has been working as an equal to her husband in providing for the family. They no longer worry about whether they will have enough to eat. They are able to send their daughter to school, which is significant in a country where schooling is not free and education is not mandatory. Chonda has opened a bank account and has been saving money, instead of living hand to mouth, dependent upon her husband’s earnings. She and her husband are now talking about starting their own business together someday. Chonda has become a powerful voice in her community, challenging other women to realize their value and equality, pressing them towards progress and being a living example of hope and change.

 

Basha: The House of Hope

Imagine living in a place wrapped in green all year, where warmth and color are alive, swirling from the rice paddies to the rickshaws to the ever growing stream of people. Imagine waking up to the smell of curry and the sound of the call to prayer. Imagine falling asleep to the rustle of palm branches and the banter of neighbors. Imagine a place where shopkeepers call out greetings as you walk by and no one is a stranger. Imagine that tea is a language of its own, poured out fluently on every corner, pausing time so friends can catch up and deals are sealed. Imagine a place where everyone is family and no one cares about your given name because you are sister, brother, uncle, auntie, grandmother, grandfather, someone who belongs.

Imagine being born daughter in this place where your physical beauty, the shade of your skin and the status of your family determine the course of your life for you. Where education comes at a cost your family most likely cannot afford. Imagine if your father, your uncles, your brothers decide who and when you will marry and how much they can pay to make that happen. While in many families, daughters are welcomed and protected, there are many more where the desperation of poverty and centuries of male dominance have led to these daughters growing up voiceless and vulnerable.

Imagine being daughter in a family that has lost its income and protection because it lost its father. When *Shanti’s father died, her mother had no choice but to take her out of school and send her to work as a maid in the home of a wealthier family. There Shanti was raped repeatedly until she became pregnant, and was thrown out onto the streets.

Imagine being forced into a marriage that you found repulsive, like *Rani, who protested against the arrangement and was beaten by her brother for objecting. Or *Jasmine, whose worst fears were realized when her new husband abused her and then abandoned her and her unborn child. Or *Lucky whose husband pimped her out to support his drug  habit.

For women like these, there is little hope. Their families rarely take them back and, more likely than not, they are blamed for their situation. In a land where employment for women is harder to find than cold water in the desert, and with their protector gone, women like these often turn to prostitution as the only way to survive. Filled with shame, their only bit of dignity left is their voice which they use to demand payment for what would otherwise be taken from them anyway.

Imagine all this. The beauty and warmth of this land of belonging and then the loss of that place of belonging. Where once you were celebrated, now you are treated like the mud that clings to the bottom of sandals in the monsoon. Where once you saw friends, now the women hate you and the men use you.

There’s little hope for prostituted women in Bangladesh. While it is quite rare for a Muslim country to legalize prostitution, most of the estimated 100,000 women carrying out the trade have not chosen it. Most of them would choose anything but prostitution, if only there was an “anything but”.

When Robin Seyfert moved to Bangladesh in 2006, she fell in love with the beauty and hospitality of the place. As she got to know some of these women and saw that there were so many who wanted an alternative, she knew she had found her new place of belonging by creating safe spaces of belonging and opportunity for these women. She says that:

“starting and running Basha, a social enterprise, was completely unexpected and has been the biggest challenge, terror and joy of my life”.

Basha, named after the Bengali word for hope, Asha, and the Bengali word for house, Basha, is a house of hope. It has grown from thirteen women in one small Dhaka apartment to more than 100 full-time production workers in five production centres throughout Bangladesh.

As you can imagine, the needs of exploited women go far beyond their need of a new source of income. Women coming to Basha begin with a training program that gives them time and space to heal. This six-month training provides basic literacy, basic English, life skills, values, conflict resolution, health and hygiene, and they are taught how to make the beautiful, one of a kind Basha products. The monthly allowance they receive allows them to completely cut ties with abusers and focus on their healing and discovering their true worth. As dignity is daily mirrored to them, their shame begins to fade and hope is born.

Not only is Basha a strong agent of change for so many women, it also works hard to give the children of these women a different life than their mothers had. It provides a daycare program which educates, tutors and and feeds the children. Basha has also opened up a hostel for young girls who used to fend for themselves on the streets. You can read some of their stories here.

I’ve gotten to rub shoulders with a few of these women and sit in hallowed spaces with them, where time stops as stories poured out mark the journey from shame to dignity. My eyes and heart overflow because I cannot hold it in, the sacred beauty of shame turned dignity. Isn’t that what we all want, our shame to be reshaped into dignity? Isn’t that what makes us brave and causes us to give ourselves away again and again, to also help the shame of others be turned into dignity?

This is where you and I can help; the building of Basha is far from over. You can read more about Basha in their journal and here are tangible ways for you to give and be involved in creating dignity for the women of Bangladesh. There are monthly and one time gift options, made easy by credit/debit card, as well as bank transfer. You can choose what you would like to support: the hostel, the training program, the nutritional program, daycare, or support for the foreign workers, like Robin, who are committed to being agents of change in Bangladesh. You can also purchase beautiful hand-crafted works of art made by Basha Boutique. Here is the list of stockists around the world who sell Basha products.

Imagine with me: Suffocating shame being transformed into breathtaking dignity.

Become a part of the Basha story.

 

*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the women.

 

 

World Fair Trade Day 2017

Saturday, May 13, is World Fair Trade Day. Started by the WFTO in 2004, the second Saturday of May has been set aside as a day to not only raise awareness of Fair Trade but to celebrate the way it has impacted millions of lives.

Simply put, Fair Trade means:

Opportunities are created for the poor to have jobs.

In Fair Trade, the supply chain is accountable and transparent from start to finish. Unlike certain large chocolate chains who say they cannot know for sure where their raw cocoa comes from, Fair Trade chocolate can be traced to the source.

Fair Trade ensures prompt and fair payment for goods. For the Pebble toys we sell, it means we provide advance payment so they can purchase the raw materials and pay wages during their production period.

Fair Trade ensures safe and empowering working conditions. Not only does it insist that working conditions are physically safe, it must also be free of discrimination and harassment.

Fair Trade ensures the rights of children. This means no children are working to make the items in your shopping cart. It means the parents are making enough money to feed, cloth, protect and educate their children.

Fair Trade is kind to the earth. Environmentally sustainable practices are taught and implemented through the entire supply chain.

To sum it up, Fair Trade celebrates cultural diversity and gives a voice to the poor and marginalized. No one is forced to work in slave like conditions. Entire communities are transformed and local economies boosted. In countries that have no Job and Family Services, no Unemployment Benefits, no place to land when they are falling, this is huge. This is dignity for every person. This is loving your neighbor as yourself. This is reason to celebrate!

Fair Trade on a Shoestring – 10 Tips For Your Tool Box

Tool Set

Let’s be honest here for a second. A lot of people want to support Fair Trade but struggle because of the higher price tags. Trust me, we know! For more than twenty years now, we have been either students, volunteers or bootstrapping entrepreneurs. If there is a crowd that shouldn’t be able to afford Fair Trade, we’re definitely a part of it. That being said, I want to tell that crowd, “You can’t afford NOT to buy Fair Trade.” There are more slaves today than there were during the entire period of the transatlantic slave trade. This is not okay with me.

Most slavery today happens because, simply put, people are poor. This is not just living-below-the-poverty-line-poor, but a poverty so desperate that some choose to become bonded laborers with little hope of ever gaining their freedom. Others send their child to work on a plantation where the child’s freedom is taken away and he or she ends up working without pay. Some migrate to another city or country in promise of a job that turns out to be a hell on earth that they can’t escape. MBA Central has an eye-opening article with statistics and info-graphics that unpack slavery in our times. You can see it here.

When we buy Fair Trade products, we are ensuring that fair wages are paid and that working conditions are safe. Families are kept together. Entire communities grow and flourish. Human trafficking and slavery are prevented. That’s something I am willing to make a sacrifice for. Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Be Aware – Be willing to research the source of the products you buy. Visualize the conditions of the workers who made the items as you consume them.
  2. Consume Less – When a friend told me he no longer bought chocolate because of the slavery issues, I was shocked. That was the first I  knew about modern day slavery. We couldn’t afford Fair Trade Chocolate at the time, so we began eating much less chocolate and, when we did, we were aware of the hands that produced it.
  3. Be content with what you have. One of the reasons slaves are “needed” today is because we consume so much. Middlemen utilize slaves so that the cost of the products we “need” or feel we deserve is affordable to us. An awareness of where products come from can lead to contentment with what I have vs. the knowledge that I may be contributing to the world’s current slavery crisis.
  4. Shop second-hand – By the time a product reaches a thrift store, the resale no longer supports a large manufacturing company with unethical principles. It also is much more affordable to you. Don’t go crazy though, and over-consume just because it is “cheap”.
  5. Start with one thing and make it your thing. Buy it only when you know it has been ethically sourced. Research it. There are many options you could choose from to start with. These include cocoa, coffee, sugar, rice, rubber, mica (the glittery stuff in makeup), cotton and garments, shoes, gold, diamonds, tobacco, bricks, coal, electronic devices, palm oil, sea food, cut flowers. The list is endless and can seem overwhelming, but start with one.
  6. Buy local – I was horrified to learn that a significant amount of the sugar in the US market is processed in slave-like conditions in the Dominican Republic. In 2014, more than 100 tons of sugar from the DR was imported into the US. As a family we had already cut back on sugar consumption for health reasons but I wanted to do more. Fair Trade Sugar is still not something that fits in our budget, so I was thrilled to find a local source of sugar, Pioneer Sugar. Cut flowers are another industry where child labor is often an issue. Pick up a fresh bouquet at your local farmer’s market instead.
  7. Buy in bulk Equal Exchange offers coffee and cocoa in 5lb. bags and is more inexpensive than buying in small packs. Chocolate chips and chocolate bars can be bought by the case and split with a friend. One of our favorite coffee roasters, Hemisphere also sells ethically sourced coffee in in 5lb bags. They roast it right before shipping and I couldn’t be happier with the results!
  8. Shop Around for your favorite Fair Trade brands and ask to be put on their mailing list. I am emailed frequent coupons from Ten Thousand Villages. Other companies email me about sales they are having.
  9. Look for ethically sourced products – There are many great brands out there that are not Fair Trade Certified but still pay their workers fair wages. The key is to do your homework.
  10. Make a wish list and let your friends and family know about it. Not only does this help to avoid receiving junk that you will pass on to a resale shop in a few months, it gives you a chance to tell your family and friends about modern day slavery. You just may get the coolest birthday gift ever, enhancing not only your life, but changing the life of an artisan on the other side of the world. The chain reaction is real and inspiring!