Stitch by stitch, Bosnian women improve their lives
Surrounded by crocheted scarves, knitted bootees and ski sweaters, and crayon-colored yarns, Sedeta Smajlovic patiently sits with her hands in her lap. She's waiting to receive a flower-bud scarf pattern, a pair of knitting needles, and several skeins of yarn. Someone will also explain the complexity of the pattern and how long the scarf will take to complete (about 20 hours).Skip to next paragraph
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For Ms. Smajlovic, this isn't just a casual foray into knitting a gift or for herself. When she is finished, her scarf will have a Bosnian Handicrafts tag that reads "Made by Sedeta." It will retail for $84, and she will earn $25.
Women such as Smajlovic, who arrive at the offices of Bosnian Handicrafts seeking employment, come from around the country; are of all ages; and are Serb, Bosnian, or Croat. But they have certain things in common: Each survived the war that ended 10 years ago, many lost loved ones, and most - if not all - are unemployed.
With a husband who's out of work and two daughters in primary school, Smajlovic says Bosnian Handicrafts is a good way for her "to use [her] free time and earn some money."
During the Bosnian war some 250,000 people died, and more than a million were displaced. Today, a depressed economy keeps an estimated 44 percent of the population unemployed.
The situation for women in this country is bleak. In addition to high unemployment, domestic violence is an issue, and many girls living in rural areas are not going to school. Bosnian women won less than 17 percent of the seats in the 2004 municipal elections. But the division is not only a struggle with gender. In some places, the divisions are ethnic.
The Bosnian Handicrafts concept was developed in 1995 after the July massacre of 8,000 to 10,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica. The Muslim women were expelled, and many ended up in and around Tuzla.
At the time, Lejla Radovic, now CEO of Bosnian Handicrafts, worked for Norwegian People's Aid in refugee centers. When working with the Srebrenica refugees, "I noticed that those women have to do something rather than be depressed and crying," she says, "and I noticed that they all had the same talent" - knitting and crocheting.
Since she launched Bosnian Handicrafts in 1999, it has grown from 250 women to 700. And it has set an example for the country - all knitting groups must include Muslim, Croat, and Serb women.
The group has also entered the international marketplace - its products are now sold on the Internet (www.bosnianhandicrafts. com) and in 50 shops around the world.
The organization's goal is "to be on Saks Fifth Avenue and [have] a million- dollar turnover." That, Ms. Radovic says, is when she will know that Bosnian Handicrafts has "made it."
Bosnia's unemployed are largely overlooked in a country that is still repairing itself after a war destroyed most of its infrastructure.
Due to conflicts in other countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, many international NGOs that initially helped in Bosnia have pulled out. Few groups aiding women still survive in the country, and almost none is as successful as Bosnian Handicrafts.