Handcrafted by Women

Villagers earn money to make a better life for families

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In a tiny village in the highlands of Guatemala, a young mother named Irma earns $3 a month weaving colorful place mats. That money, added to the $3 a day her husband brings in, helps to feed and educate their four children.

A continent away in the Ndebele region of South Africa, a mother of two, Deliwa, strings colorful beads into necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Although she also does dressmaking, her monthly earnings - between $22 and $57 - come largely from beading.

And in northern Thailand, a 27-year-old woman, Amima, earns $68 a month by making applique purses, place mats, and napkins. That money supports a family of 10.

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Around the world, women like these defy conventional Western definitions of the term "working mother." Yet their artistic skills, passed down from mother to daughter, generation after generation, play a crucial role in the survival and well-being of their families. As they turn exquisite indigenous crafts into cash, they become part of a global economy. Their earnings, however meager, also encourage another social legacy: a better-educated next generation, which benefits their entire communities.

"These women are completely invested in educating their children," says Paola Gianturco, co-author, with Toby Tuttle, of "In Her Hands: Craftswomen Changing the World" (Monacelli Press, $60). "Some are working 18 hours a day to make it possible for their kids to get to school. If women are working this hard, this productively, supporting these kids, this is absolutely heroic."

So heroic that Ms. Gianturco, a folk-art collector for nearly 20 years, decided to spotlight these "invisible women with their world-altering dreams." She took a leave from her consulting firm in Mill Valley, Calif. She also invited Ms. Tuttle, a friend who is an investment banker in Evergreen, Colo., to travel with her. Aided by nonprofit craft councils and museums, they traced various crafts back to their villages of origin. These range from molas made by the Kuna Indians of Panama's San Blas Islands to dolls dressed in bright, sequined costumes from Soganli, Turkey, and mirror-embroidered fashions from Gujarat, India.

Over a two-year period, Tuttle and Gianturco traveled to 12 countries on four continents, interviewing and photographing 90 craftswomen in 28 villages. Accompanied by translators, they spent a week in each village. In settings ranging from a flimsy straw-mat house in Peru to a dusty patch of ground in Africa, they asked women about their lives, their work, their dreams, and their aspirations for their children. Stories of courage and determination abounded.

The United Nations Development Program calculates that women provide the primary support for a quarter of all families in the world. They are the sole support for another quarter.

Extremely poor women, Gianturco and Tuttle learned, use their earnings to educate their children. Men tend to spend on other things. Sometimes men work but do not earn cash. They tend animals or live in a barter society.

Other men go off to cities to find work. But the high cost of living in a city leaves little or no money to send home. "They may also spend it on beer, cigarettes, women, or a bicycle," says Tuttle. Some men also form second families in the cities.

Although Tuttle and Gianturco expected that men might be angry and resentful about their wives' income, they were not. "We asked every woman, 'How does your husband feel about your earning money?' " Tuttle explains. "They would say, 'He's proud of my work,' or 'He wishes I didn't have to do this.' "

Women's income allows families to improve their housing, sanitation, and nutrition. When they earn money from their crafts, their self-esteem improves. Birthrates drop. Children and husbands give them more respect. Domestic violence may decline.

In India, Gianturco notes, if a woman earns money, her family is less likely to be saddled with dowry debts. "That debt is so overwhelming that many families are not interested in having girls."

Almost all the craftswomen live below the international income-poverty line, which the UN defines as $1 a day. Many are illiterate. Yet by forming cooperatives and negotiating short-term loans, they can buy raw materials and market their crafts. One international group, Freedom From Hunger, offers micro-credit programs to impoverished women in developing countries. With no collateral, they are ineligible for regular bank loans.

Calling these women "micro-enterprise heroines," the authors explain that every woman must co-sign the loan for every other woman in the group.

"If you've got seven women, they all pledge that all seven will have repaid [their loans] at the end of the loan cycle," says Tuttle. In Bolivia, loans are based on a 16-week cycle. When all women repay the loan, averaging $128, they can get the next one.

Despite their humble circumstances, the craftswomen are not ashamed or degraded by their poverty. "We were surprised by how poor those women did not seem to be," says Gianturco. "They felt they had pretty good lives, and they were proud of their kids and their work."

The women's quiet acceptance of their hard lives also led Gianturco and Tuttle to reconsider their own definitions of lack and abundance. "I came away thinking about what poverty really is," Gianturco says. "We view it as a lack of material goods. They had a very rich spiritual and emotional and family and community life. From their perspective, they were very wealthy by anyone's standards. There was also humor in their lives."

But even women in remote villages are subject to the politics that affect markets and the ability to make a living. In Peru's Amazon Basin, tourists' demand for pottery made by the Shipibo women ended when Shining Path terrorists were active in the area. In Turkey, the Gulf War also disrupted tourism.

Politics can have other consequences as well. During the Soviet occupation of the Czech Republic, fine arts were virtually snuffed out. But because women's crafts were regarded as nonthreatening and apolitical, women were able to continue painting their prized Easter eggs.

Some also face another challenge. Throughout the world, the authors found, men take over as soon as technology becomes integral to production.

As craftswomen shared the stories of their lives with American visitors and discussed their work, conversations also spilled over into other subjects.

"We talked about babies and love," Tuttle says. "We were just a bunch of gals." Women wanted advice on how to market their goods. They wondered how women in other countries handle domestic violence. And they asked for help in obtaining scholarships for their children.

Many mothers face a dilemma: how to ensure that their daughters get an education while still learning the crafts that will enable them to support their own families someday.

"As much as we want girls in school, there is a downside," says Tuttle. "Now that daughters are spending all day in school, time [with their mothers] diminishes." Some groups are setting up after-school classes so girls, even though they might be using computer programs, can learn traditional crafts.

To support their families successfully, Gianturco says, women need four things: information about health and business, plus access to credit and to markets. Almost every group she and Tuttle met needs a broader market. The two women encourage people to buy indigenous crafts for themselves and as gifts. They also urge shoppers to patronize retailers who post the Fair Trade Federation symbol.

In January, Gianturco and Tuttle will begin marketing notecards featuring photographs of the women and their crafts. A portion of the proceeds will benefit nonprofit organizations that support crafts.

For now, the authors continue to savor the life-changing lessons that craftswomen like Irma and Deliwa and Amima taught them. Says Gianturco, "We learned how small the world is, and how interconnected our lives are."

Where to find more information about indigenous crafts

Aid to Artisans 14 Brick Walk Lane Farmington, CT 06032 (860) 677-1649 www.aid2artisans.org E-mail: atausa@aol.com

Crafts Center 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 525 Washington, DC 20036 (202) 728-9603 E-mail: info@craftscenter.org

The Folk Art Gallery 1321 Fourth St. San Rafael, CA 94901 (415) 925-9096 www.thefolkartgallery.com E-mail: folkart@wco.com

Global Exchange 2017 Mission St., Room 303 San Francisco, CA 94110 (415) 255-7296 www.globalexchange.org E-mail: gx-info@globalexchange.org

Museum of International Folk Art Camino Lejo off Old Santa Fe Trail Santa Fe, NM 87501 (505) 476-1200 www.moifa.org

National Museum of African Art 950 Independence Ave., SW Washington, DC 20560 (202) 357-2700

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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