Handcrafted by Women
Villagers earn money to make a better life for families
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.