Monday, May 23, 2011

Creating opportunities

In 2007, I was working for Global Youth Partnership for Africa, a non-profit that organized youth programs on conflict resolution in Northern Uganda. We were based in Gulu for a week, meeting with young people, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government officials, and Ugandan citizens - to try to understand the roots of conflict, and how the region might realize a sustainable peace. During our breaks, I would walk with students through the central market, admiring the beautiful fabrics and the quiet whir of the foot-pedal sewing machines. Stall after stall was filled with tailors - a by-product of NGO vocational trainings. Tailoring is a very popular skill set meant to economically empower women in places like Northern Uganda.

Gulu's central market, filled with NGO-trained tailors

There was a problem here. While the market was filled with tailors, few of them were able to earn a livelihood - most of them could barely cover rent on their market stalls. Their best hope was to clothe the aid workers (like us) who spent lazy weekend afternoons in Gulu shopping the market and having dresses made.

The first principle of Fair Trade is about market connection:

Creating opportunities for economically and socially marginalized producers.

The Fair Trade Federation, the membership body in North America promoting fair trade products, defines this principle further:

Fair Trade is a strategy for poverty alleviation and sustainable development. Members create social and economic opportunities through trading partnerships with marginalized producers. Members place the interests of producers and their communities as the primary concern of their enterprise.

Auma Lucy in her market stall in Gulu

Auma Lucy was a good tailor. She had a bare stall with a sewing machine, and was trying to grow her business amongst the competition in the market. She was charismatic, and compared with most women in Northern Uganda, her English was fantastic. She took every opportunity to bring in young women who were suffering - single mothers, young women she feared might "get into trouble" - she saw herself in these women, sitting at home with nothing to occupy their time, never finishing their schooling for lack of school fee money, getting pregnant too young - or worse, contracting HIV.

the tool to change lives

On her own, Lucy struggled to make ends meet. She didn't have funds to pay rent on her market stall. She had thirteen children at home (eleven orphans) and her elderly parents to worry about. With a market connection to customers in the United States, she could really make an impact (and much-needed profit).

All women in Northern Uganda bear a heavy burden. During the conflict, they lost their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers, and are often victims themselves - forced to fight as soldiers, serve as soldiers' wives, raped and stigmatized by their own communities. Regardless of their past circumstances, any woman will tell you that when it comes time to put food on the table and send their kids to school, she will do whatever she must to pull it together and make ends meet.

The sheer quantity of trained tailors in Uganda was a curse for the local market, where customers were few. A connection to the United States market turned that curse into an opportunity - an opportunity for poor women in a region destroyed by more than twenty years of armed conflict to earn a living and create change in their lives.

This post is part of a series about Fair Trade Federation's Nine Fair Trade Principles. The series was inspired by Using Fair Trade Principles to Empower Women in Uganda, a talk given at the Library of Congress by One Mango Tree's founder in November 2010. You can watch the video here.

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