Stitch by stitch, Bosnian women improve their lives

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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).

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.

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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.

Today, the group is nearly 80 percent sustainable (meaning it needs only 20 percent of its costs to be subsidized by donors). Radovic is unwaveringly optimistic that the organization will be 100 percent sustainable within the next three years.

Bosnia Handicrafts was launched with a $200,000 loan from the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), but now receives only small grants from the British Embassy and organizations such as the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR).

The goal of complete sustainability is realistic, say observers.

What really sets this group apart from those that have failed is that it has "merged this cause with business thinking," says Ranko Milanovic-Blank, a program manager for UMCOR. "I think they will exist for many years to come."

Bosnian Handicrafts has caught the attention of French fashion house Agnes B. and department store Neiman Marcus. But so far the women's most lucrative fundraiser is during Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival. Last year, more than 600 women produced 6,000 pieces - including traditional slipper socks and Christmas stockings - for which the organization received $160,000.

The women take home 40 percent of the net earnings, and the remaining profit goes toward materials, salaries, and other necessities to keep group afloat and on its way to independence.

The demise of NGOs set up to aid women isn't entirely the consequence of the international community pulling out, says Nada Ler Sofronic, director of Women and Society, a research, policy and advocacy center in Sarajevo. A clear vision and a global strategy, such as Bosnian Handicrafts has adopted, are necessary for success, she adds.

Its business model has worked so well that recently an American organization contacted Radovic because they wanted to use her ideas to set up an NGO for a group of women carpet weavers in Albania.

One thing Radovic told them she insists on is perfection of the products.

In the Tuzla office, it is not unusual for Diana Hadzimustafic, the company's production manager and designer, to model a sweater that was improved after it didn't pass a quality control inspection. Radovic eyeballs it, tells her to turn around, and then nods her head indicating that it is ready to be shipped to the Sarajevo store.

In the organization's infancy, quality was the biggest problem. Now, less than 5 percent of the items have to be done over.

Radovic won't take credit for changing the women's lives, but "we did part of it," she says. "In the beginning, they didn't know the name of colors. Now they not only know the names of colors, but they know the name of the colors in English."

Having women of various ethnic backgrounds work together, wasn't as difficult as people might expect, she says. "We never treat people like who they are, but how they work. I divide people if they work or not. That's it."

In the beginning, the group had to find the knitters and also locate outlets to carry the finished products. "At the time, it wasn't about [being] big - it was just to keep them busy," Radovic says. "Now, they find us."

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