Empowering women has a different meaning and reality for each of us. It’s complex. In the modern western world, it’s often related to women receiving equal pay, opportunities and respect as men in the workplace. For us at The Dharma Door, empowering women is a much broader concept and a core part of our ethos. Grab yourself a cuppa or a glass of wine and let me tell you a very special story...
A few years ago, I was visiting a remote, rural community in Bangladesh where women artisans handcraft our jute baskets. I was accompanied by the CEO Kohinoor and staff from the not-for-profit NGO that supports these women, and our US partner William. As we approached the village, we were greeted by the wide smiles of locals who hung garlands of marigolds around our necks before we were led to a building. On the doorstep was a circle of small brightly-coloured shoes and we could hear the whispering of excited children inside awaiting their visitors.
As we stepped inside we were greeted with “Hello’s!” and a beautiful performance of well-rehearsed songs. It soon became apparent that this building is the lifeblood of the community. It is a primary school for the first half of the day, ensuring education for the artisans children. And a weaving centre for the second half of the day, ensuring economic empowerment for the women. It’s also the only guaranteed dry, clean space for storing jute...a pretty critical fact for this village, which is surrounded by deltas that often flood during the monsoon season.
We spent some time with the children, giving them pencils and stickers and watching them learn. When school was finished and they went home with other family members, we spent time with their Mums while they were weaving baskets for our next order. Through translated conversation we learned the story of their community….
In 1971, Bangladesh became independent from Pakistan. While this brought benefits and support from Western countries, it also opened up potential for the marginalised and disadvantaged to be exploited. Enter the largest tobacco company in the world with inflated promises to the men of the region encouraging them to do away with their food crops and replace them with tobacco in exchange for a lot more money.“You won’t even need to grow food because you’ll be able to afford to buy all the food you want”, along with a string of other promises including educating their children.
Of course, seeking a way out of poverty the men agreed to grow tobacco and the women agreed to hand-rolling cigarettes. Soon there was no food growing in the region. Only vast fields of tobacco. The children were working in the fields alongside their parents. All were inhaling tobacco dust and developing nicotine addiction, creating major health and social problems across the whole community. The men were not earning as much as they were with their food crops and the women were being paid a pittance for rolling thousands of cigarettes a day. And sadly, there was no education for the children. This continued for decades.
Fast forward to today and the not-for-profit NGO we partner with has a full-scale development plan in action for rebuilding every aspect of this community. They have taught the men how to cut contracts with the tobacco company and how to organically regenerate their land, once decimated by the tobacco crops and pesticides. They teach entrepreneurship skills, money management and nutrition to both men and women. They build schools, bring in mobile medical clinics and work on social issues, including workshops on respect in relationships with an aim to reduce domestic violence.
Women’s empowerment through fairly trading baskets is one very important and transformational part of this plan. That is where The Dharma Door's commitment lies. We see our role in this story as vital to the success and impact of the rebuilding of this community. Through weaving jute baskets, these formerly-marginalised women are able to contribute economically to their families. In partnership with the not-for-profit NGO, they set the prices for their work. And as a result, they have the opportunity to improve their living conditions by building houses, installing toilets, educating their children, accessing medical care or simply being able to buy new clothes for themselves.
They're just the things we can measure tangibly. The broader social impact is so much more. Consider the self-confidence that comes from a having a sense of purpose; the pride that comes from creating something beautiful; the sense of dignity from being able to contribute economically to their family. Further anecdotal evidence exists of a reduction in domestic violence as the women, who often end up earning more than their husbands, also earn their respect.
Supporting the empowerment of women who make our baskets strengthens the fabric of their communities socially and economically, encourages equality, challenges cultural norms and inspires the next generation. We are truly proud to be a part of this positive development.
Before you go, I want to share this memorable moment with you…
We gathered for a meeting with the artisans and there were a couple of super-sassy women who stood up to sing a song, which Kohinoor translated after she’d stopped laughing. They sang of how grateful they are that we sell their baskets and thanked us and our customers for giving them a chance to earn a good living. However their song continued...they told us that we must work harder to give them bigger orders so their sisters in the community can be trained and work too. These are women who are not used to their voices being heard, now filled with the confidence to stand up and ask for they want. They don’t hold back and it filled me with joy to see their strength shining through.
This is women’s empowerment in action - Dharma Door style.