Every year in North America, the World Fair Trade Organization and thousands of affiliated individuals and groups celebrate the gifts of fair trade on the second Saturday in May. World Fair Trade Day highlights the importance of fair trade practices, including safe working conditions for all employees and providing an equitable wage. Consumers are urged to 'vote with their wallets' in the hopes of encouraging the spread of fair trade throughout all commerce.
Also every year in North America, Mother's Day is celebrated on the second Sunday in May. The fact that these two observances share a weekend is almost certainly not coincidental, given how many fair trade artisan groups specifically seek to employ and support impoverished mothers. By providing a fair, sustainable source of income for the women of struggling families, these artisan groups make it possible for future generations to enjoy greater health as well as increased opportunities.
One such artisan group is based in the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh. Prokritee, which takes its name from the Bengali word for nature, is committed to fair trade principles and has been since it was formed in 2001. They are not an artisan group themselves so much as they are an agency working with other handicraft groups throughout the country. They provide assistance in management, development, and marketing for these producers of handcrafts, with a special emphasis on creating designs which are inspired by and represent Bangladesh's cultural heritage.
Although the central office is located in Dhaka, as is the outlet store called "Source," jobs for the individual artisans are found in workshops throughout the country. Prokritee and its affiliates are committed to providing employment to rural Bengali women who need their support. These women are often widows or divorcees, or heads of their households for other reasons, and usually have no land or other source of income. By working with Prokritee's artisan groups, the women are able to improve their own standard of living and better provide for their dependents. The children are able to attend school instead of working to support the family.
Artisan groups united under Prokritee's banner create baskets, handmade paper, and wooden toys, among other things. The women are given opportunities not only for training and education, but also for advancement; those with proven skills are given supervisory and leadership positions within the artisan groups, enabling them to reach their fullest potential. Prokritee's website shares the stories of women from impoverished backgrounds who have changed their lives and their families' lives through the work they do with the artisan groups.
Ruth & Naomi
Similar values are at work in Guatemala, where the government's "scorched earth" policy of the 1980s left many women widowed, orphaned, and otherwise disenfranchised. A Methodist pastor and his wife collected several of these women and helped them form Ruth & Naomi, named for two Biblical widows who made their own way in life. By tapping into the Guatemalan tradition of weaving and bringing the products to the international market, Ruth & Naomi has made it possible for women in such dire straits to survive beyond their unfortunate circumstances.
Women weave cloth from brightly colored materials, and men who have been trained as tailors sew the cloth into quality handbags and garments. Native pride abounds in many of the designs, which represent Guatemala's vibrant culture and flora. The strict adherence to fair trade principles has turned around the lives of these artisans and their families. After the artisans' children complete high school, a scholarship program enables many of them to pursue higher education. The cooperative has also established a health and nutrition center to directly address the needs of malnourished children.
In Zimbabwe, mothers of children with special needs are often culturally shunned. Local beliefs about the origin of disabilities cause many people to avoid afflicted families. Additionally, almost one-fourth of the country's population lives with HIV/AIDS, and these too are affected by the same stigma.
The artisan group Batsiranai, whose name means "helping each other," is a craft project specifically designed to assist the mothers of special needs children. The challenges with which these women live are oppressive. But thanks to the efforts of Batsiranai, they are able to work close to their homes, meaning that they are available for their children while still able to earn vital income to support them.
Batsiranai originated in the township of Dzivarasekwa, and consisted of 24 mothers of children with special needs who made and sold handcrafted items. Today, the artisan group employs 140 women. Batsiranai is part of the Zimbabwe Parents of Disabled Children Association, and there are some 600 families registered with this advocacy group throughout the country. It is the hope of the artisans that eventually, their success will grow so that all of the families of special needs children in Zimbabwe can be supported and assisted through their work.
These are just some of the stories of how through fair trade, families everywhere are living healthier, richer, fuller lives. On the second Saturday in May, and every day of the year, celebrate the gifts that fair trade brings to all of us.
To find a World Fair Trade Day event near you, click here. Though if you live near me, I'll be very disappointed if you don't come to mine.