One way to improve the lot of third-world women. Jessica Lindner's organization develops markets for their handicrafts

Jessica Lindner sits on a chair, one leg tucked neatly under her, and talks about her dream. Her dark brown eyes are lively, bright with interest in what she's doing - marketing handcrafted items for third-world women. Ms. Lindner has a master's degree in music and is working on another in English. But she has no previous management experience except for co-directing the Wisconsin Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign.

The idea for her People's Exchange International began back in 1981 when she and her husband, Harry, a foreign car mechanic, went to Mexico and Guatemala for six months.

``It was my first experience traveling in third-world countries,'' she says, ``and what hit me the hardest was how very hard the women work - and for how little.''

A second trip - this time to Peru, Ecuador, and Bolivia in 1984 - strengthened Lindner's impression: ``Again, I was struck by how very hard the women work. When I came back, I began developing the idea of somehow working with those women.

The result was People's Exchange International, a nonprofit organization that buys ``high-quality, handcrafted items made by women and other underemployed individuals from the third world.'' PEI carries goods from Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala.

Since founding PEI, Lindner has received inquiries from a woman entrepreneur and a cooperative in India. At present she is looking for funding for an artisans' cooperative in Peru. PEI will carry goods from African countries as soon as Lindner has made contact with suppliers there.

She found that women she met in Central and South America as producers of goods were dependent on selling their product in the streets to passers-by.

She says: ``This `market' represents a huge section of employed women, who are sitting ducks for exploitation and who are dependent on the chance passer-by.... They have no access to a formal market, and I knew if we could provide one, we could reach a great many more people.

``I also knew that we would offer an opportunity to people in this country who really care about this issue and who would like to participate in change, people who might not have the opportunity to go where these women are.''

How does PEI market the goods?

Lindner attends arts and crafts fairs throughout the Midwest and also visits her customers' homes. She brings an elegant and very sophisticated version of the Tupperware party - with beautiful merchandise one might not otherwise have the opportunity to see, let alone purchase.

She sees her efforts in forming PEI as one step toward improving the lot of women throughout the developing world.

``I think that what is needed is a global link, a real sense that we are all tied together,'' says Lindner. ``And although that's certainly improving, there's a lot still to do. It's a global problem, and without the awareness of that, things won't change.

``Despite the problems we have here, women really are worse off in the developing countries than they are here.''

She speaks of Ramijia, a 19-year-old Peruvian Indian who is raising her nine-month-old child by herself. Ramijia told Lindner that she did not want to get married, because in her experience all that meant was that she would have a spouse to care for as well as many children. She was also afraid of abuse, which she said was common.

Ramijia weaves belts in the public square in Cuzco and sells them to passers-by. She has to pay $6 a month for a permit to do so. She has to pay the rent on an apartment and told Lindner that on a very good week she will make $12. But she has very few good ones. If she does not make any money, she doesn't eat.

Everywhere Lindner went she met women like Ramijia, each one with her own story.

Lindner also works with organizations that educate third-world women. ``I realized that although these women do need to raise their economic circumstances, they need more than to just have money dumped in their lap. They need access to education. ... One of the organizations with whom I'm working is Peru Mujer [Peruvian Women]. They provide education on legal rights pertaining to abuse - and there's a lot of that down there - and to inheritance - that sort of thing.

``They also provide access to information on family planning, health education, nutrition, and gardening. Our profits go to Peru Mujer.

``So when you buy a sweater to go cross-country skiing from People's Exchange International, you will not just keep yourself warm, you will provide improved economic circumstances for a woman and her family and give her an opportunity to improve her own circumstances through education.''

PEI's first year has been very successful, and Lindner is optimistic about its future. She plans to open a storefront and has volunteers working on information on women in agriculture, women in education - as many aspects of life concerning women as she can find volunteers to handle.

``Being a woman,'' she says, ``I was increasingly tired of seeing my gender treated as second-class citizens. Being in a third-world country really brings that into focus. I realized that this was as important to me as anything.''

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