The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day celebrations is ‘Choose to Challenge’. The women who make our collection are part of society’s most disadvantaged or marginalised communities, so they are familiar with the resilience, strength and determination required to overcome adversity. Sometimes their circumstances are shaped by being born into a low caste or because they have a physical disability - both limit their community standing and opportunities. Other times artisans have experienced hardship because they are no longer married or simply because they are female. Although gender roles are generally changing for the better around the world, many of the women we work with are part of a patriarchal society that determines very different outcomes for males and females.
So on this important day, we support the call to continue to challenge the existing hierarchy by joining voices with our partners and artisans. Together we are devoted to empowering females to bring about change so that the women and girls can enjoy more equal opportunities and ultimately a brighter future. We hope you enjoy hearing how some of the inspiring women we work with choose to challenge each day.
As a Fair Trade brand, we operate as part of a large and complex web of support organisations. Although much of our day-to-day effort is focused on our distinct brand, our power ultimately comes from a wider interconnectedness, with each part playing an important role.
The Dharma Door has operations based in Australia and Europe, where we focus on creating original designs and building a strong business. We work with a small group of not-for-profit NGO partners because they operate within artisan communities, so they are best positioned to provide support in person. Our partners have an established history of Fair Trade practices, training and programs that guarantee fair wages, healthy working conditions and facilitate a host of other life-changing support for artisans and their families. They run multiple branches in both urban and rural centres, so many geographic locations and opportunities are covered when all elements are combined. Together we facilitate the powerful change that comes about with improved gender equality.
Trade is all about the exchange of goods, so we have always focused on building a strong business to enable us to provide consistent, ongoing orders. Where other organisations often wax and wane in the quantities they order and the people they order from, we have always prided ourselves on working with artisan partner groups long term, so the women who make our products can benefit from stable, secure employment.
We believe in the power of true Fair Trade to create positive change for the women who craft our products. Over the years we have learned that if women in the communities where we work are earning a regular and secure income, they will make sure their well-earned money is spent where it is most needed - whether it be education for their girls to prevent child marriage, improving their living conditions or paying for a much-needed medical procedure for a family member. Initially, the men in these communities are reluctant to support the women because it challenges the social norm. However, when they begin to see and experience the positive changes for all, they embrace the idea of women earning a fair wage.
Through good design and quality craftswomanship, we’ve been able to create a collection of products that is appreciated the world over. For genuine Fair Trade partnerships to be successful, we need to build strong mutual relationships by providing ongoing, consistent orders over the long term to the artisans. This creates a sense of security for the women so they can support their families and plan for their futures.
Shannon Sheedy, The Dharma Door Founder
It is this financial security and autonomy that enables the women The Dharma Door works with to empower themselves. And the changes that take place when a woman begins to earn a living are powerful. In a society where young girls are still regularly sold into marriage and prohibited from attending school because they are expected to work in the home, artisans often become the chief breadwinner in their home.
Since we began operating in 2004, we have regularly received feedback that husbands begin to view and treat their wives differently, domestic violence decreases and the women are able to have more of a say in the key decision making of their family. In turn, these actions have a profound impact on an artisan’s ability to steer their daughter’s future, often via education. All of these shifts support generational change and hope as the gender balance continues to shift.
The founder of one of these organisations has been a consistent part of our arrangement since 2012. Her own organisation began with the intention to bring hope to the lives of the ‘untouchable and outcaste’ people of her district by providing them with the opportunity to 'work free from the oppression of caste.’ Starting with nothing, her organisation now employs more than 115 people full time, with 5300 rural women involved as artisans- 75% of these women create handmade products using natural jute fibres, while the remainder craft items using date palm, wheat straw, leather, embroidery and wood.
She proudly boasts of the negligible attrition of her team, with some women now working for the organisation for more than 30 years. Together they offer programs in rural development, healthcare, water treatment, education and protection for vulnerable adolescent girls against early marriage. They run schools for adults and children – including a special needs school – plus support for children who are born with a disability; a women's health centre and maternity clinic so women have a safe place to give birth; micro-credit programs and centres devoted to creating products using traditional and modern handicraft skills.
From the beginning, we give priority to women and girls to improve their life as they are the most vulnerable. They earn less income and are less valued by their family and society. We trained the women to develop skills, engaged them in handicraft work and ensure a good income source for them.
Girls come under an umbrella where they get support for education and grow with protection. We monitor them so that nobody becomes a victim of child marriage. We provide support to girls to attend college and receive a university education.
My dream is a society where every girl grows with equal rights and women are living full of dignity - in their family and their society. We want to create more job opportunities for women so they have a good income source, which ultimately gives them value in society and ensures a social safety net for them.
Laura, Co-founder of Fair Trade organisation in Bangladesh
From the artisan’s perspective, concerns are often initially focused on their immediate livelihoods. As security builds, they are able to shift their focus to changes that will make a better future for them and their children.
My husband is a farmer. His small income was not enough to maintain our family expenditure. Poverty invited trouble into our family. Now I can contribute to my family and became part of my family’s decision-making process. Our joint income ensures a better standard of living for all of my family members. My greatest pleasure came when we saved money from our joint income and purchased a small piece of land where we built our own house.
I hope that my sons will continue to be well educated and will hold strong moral values in terms of respect for women and women rights. My dream is that my sons will be gender-sensitive, responsible husbands and fathers in their family life. I hope the women of my family will continue our strong bonds with our Fair Trade organisation for the betterment of all the women of our region.
Sondha Mondal, Artisan
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