Women in Progress program in Ghana

ORSELLI VILLAGE, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–Summertime brings its usual flood of tourists visiting Turkey to see its historic sites and swim at its beaches.

A good number of those visitors, unable to resist the ubiquitous calls of the country’s countless carpet hawkers, will return home with a handmade Turkish rug, probably giving little thought to who made and just how much they earned for it.

In most cases, the rug was made by a Turkish woman (or sometimes young girl) living in one of the country’s hardscrabble villages and who was most likely paid barely enough to cover her living expenses. While rugs in Turkey, where the average annual income is around $3,000, can cost several hundred dollars, their makers will usually only earn a fraction of that.

That, at least, used to be the case in the village of Orselli, a collection of squat stone and cement houses set high up in the mountains outside the seaside city of Izmir, Turkey’s second largest. Women have been weaving rugs in Orselli for as long as anyone can remember, but at a certain point the tradition stopped having any economic benefit for the women as they barely made any profit from the middlemen from nearby market towns who bought their carpets, themselves squeezed by the arrival of cheap, factory-made rugs.

Soon, younger women stopped being interested in learning how to weave, while those who continued turned to cheaper synthetic dyes, instead of time-tested natural ones, which only further diminished their carpets’ value, since rug collectors prefer to buy carpets made with natural dyes.

Some 20 years ago, though, that trend suddenly stopped. Aided by a German professor named Harald Bohmer and Istanbul’s Marmara University, both of whom wanted to see the use of natural dyes made from local material reintroduced in the area, a group of women from Orselli formed a co-operative to help them in the production and marketing of their rugs. Today, the carpets made by Dobag, as the co-operative is known, are world famous, recognized by collectors for their vivid colors and striking, animistic patterns.

“My handicrafts became more valuable and I started to earn more money,” says Cennet Deneri, the 47-year-old president of the co-op, which today has 160 members from six neighboring villages. “We’ve also improved our living standard. Also, women in the village are now economically independent.”

“I’m no longer dependent on my husband. I’m an equal,” she adds with a wide smile.

Traditional Crafts

Dobag’s story is one that’s being repeated around the globe these days with the growth of more women-run co-operatives focused on helping women sell traditional crafts on the global market. From Southeast Asia to Central America, projects that are helping women gain economic control of their work and also enabling them to perpetuate their traditional crafts are increasing in numbers and visibility.

“It’s definitely been a growing area of interest in the development community. It used to be more fringe, but now you see bigger groups getting involved,” says Nina Smith, executive director of Rugmark U.S.A., a Washington-based group that works to prevent the use of child labor in the production of carpets.

“The whole market for fair trade products, be it coffee beans or crafts, has really grown dramatically. It used to be more of a solidarity market, like a church group trying to help low-income women in Nicaragua, and now it’s much more mainstream,” she says.

Experts working on the fair trade issue estimate that women represent between 70 and 80 percent of the world’s crafts workers. There are no statistics for how many female artisans are working with co-operatives and other projects offering women fair wages and a voice in how the business is run, but the number, for now, is sure to be low, say professionals working in the field.

Marketplace: Handwork of India, a 10-year-old organization based in Chicago that helps Indian crafts workers sell products such as embroidered fabrics and hand-woven clothes through its Web site and catalog and in boutiques, currently has 450 women involved in its program, which last year generated $750,000 in sales. Marketplace’s president, Pushpika Freitas, says the organization’s work has so far touched the lives of a small minority of Indian women crafts workers, but she believes there’s a realistic potential for expansion.

“With the right infra-structure, planning and networking it can happen,” she says in an e-mail sent from Mumbai, where Marketplace coordinates its activities in India.

“We think we have proven that one can take crafts and make it a viable business and we are looking for supporters to help us take this model to a wider level and work with other women in India.”

Wider Fair Trade Movement

The growth of such female crafts projects is being pushed along by the emergence of the wider Fair Trade movement, which seeks to raise consumers’ awareness of the conditions under which the things they buy were made or grown under. Although Fair Trade is frequently associated with agricultural products such as coffee or bananas, it also has a strong concern with gender equality, says Carol Wills, former executive director of the Netherlands-based International Fair Trade Association.

“I think some fine work has been done, in terms of promoting women’s interests and women’s rights and encouraging women to participate more fully in what is going on in terms of their work situation,” says Wills.

Like the crafts projects themselves, the Fair Trade movement is still small, but growing rapidly. Sales of Fair Trade products in 2002 were estimated at just over $400 million, with handicrafts representing 25 percent of the products sold, according to the Bonn, Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International. Still, in 2003 Fair Trade sales grew worldwide by 43 percent, including 61 percent growth in the United Kingdom, 81 percent in France and 400 percent in Italy.

Despite the projects’ small size, the impact on the lives of the women involved in these types of projects is significant, say the women involved. While the painstaking and specialized handiwork they do once earned them nearly nothing, today it represents a living wage and perhaps even more.

Main Source of Income

In Orselli, rug making is today the village’s main source of income, allowing its residents to buy washing machines and other appliances they once only dreamed about. Meanwhile, the steady stream of international visitors coming to inspect the village’s carpets led the local government to finally pave the winding road to Orselli. The village is still off the tourist map, but it is certainly known by rug store owners from Europe and the United States, who regularly come to the village to buy new stock.

“Now more women are making carpets. They are making money and more carpets are being sold,” says co-op president Deneri, dressed in baggy, floral-patterned pants and a light blue headscarf loosely wrapped around her face. “Even young women are learning from their mothers. There’s a loom in almost every house in the village.”

Deneri says before the co-op, the village’s women were lucky to get 150 million Turkish lira, or $115, for a carpet they worked months on and which cost them close to $80 in materials. Today, they women receive their wool and loom from the co-op, which then pays them $270 for each rug and even a small bonus if it’s sold within a year, as a way of encouraging the weavers to produce high-quality, sellable designs. Since most of the village’s men are involved in irregular agricultural seasonal work, the rug-making is the closest thing the villagers have to a guaranteed income.

In Ghana, a project called Women in Progress based in the city of Cape Coast is helping some 26 female-owned businesses–many of them making traditional Ghanaian clothing–get off the ground with training and financial help and with marketing their goods through an on-line store called Global Mamas.

participants in the Women in Progress business development program in Ghana

Renae Adam, an American who is the project’s co-founder, originally came to Ghana in 1994 as a Peace Corps volunteer and was struck by the lack of support for women-led enterprises. She returned two years ago after earning her graduate business degree to launch her project.

“Women are the heart of the family, so by helping women you can be sure that the money will go back into the family,” Adam says, speaking over the telephone from the city of Cape Coast in Ghana.

Many of the women who approach her are experiencing major struggles in their lives. Some have been evicted from their homes. Others can’t afford to send their kids to school.

“We’ve done a lot of reporting and you can see that the money does get put back into the family. You can see that the children are going back to school,” Adam says.

Adam’s organization pays the women up front for the products they sell on its Web site, which allows the women to reinvest the money in their businesses. While Ghana’s average annual income is around $200, the women working with the organization are sometimes earning up to ten times that. Adam says some of the women have even started paying for their relatives’ children to go back to school.

“You can definitely see that it’s bringing up the whole family and the whole community as well,” she says.

Organizers of the artisan projects say the biggest hurdle still facing them is marketing their products. The emergence of the Internet as a sales tool has been a big help, however.

The growth of the larger fair trade movement has also been significant for them. By being connected with the fair trade issue, the women behind the different crafts-producing organizations are hoping next time a tourist buys a rug in Turkey, an embroidery in India or a gown in Ghana, perhaps they will stop to think about the craftswoman who made it and whether she was paid a fair price for it.

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul where he writes for the Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Report, as well as other publications.

For more information:

Marketplace: Handwork of India:

Women in Progress:

Oxfam International–
“Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains”: