Weaving a Better Future: A story of women's empowerment
From Africa to Asia to the Americas, women artisans are forming cooperatives. Whether they are weavers, painters, embroiderers or jewelry makers, they are finding strength and building a brighter future through collaborative businesses that they own and manage as a group.
Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities explores how working collectively has enabled women to support their families, transform their communities and preserve their traditional arts. Using authentic handmade artworks and virtual reality, this temporary exhibition tells the story of how grassroots collaboration can advance human rights – including the right to work – to obtain an adequate standard of living, to reclaim culture, and to live in health and safety. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Amparo and Oralia, two of the Guatemalan women whose stories are featured in our “Weaving A Better Future” virtual reality experience. Empowering Women closes on January 8, 2017.
When did you create your cooperative and why? What was the idea behind it?
Amparo: TRAMA Textiles started as a result of the armed conflict in Guatemala1. We are helping the five most affected areas in the country: Quiché, Zacapa, Sololá, Huehuetenango and Quetzaltenango. The sole objective of the cooperative is to give women work. We began working together in 1988. There are 400 women in our cooperative.
How did you get involved in the project?
Amparo: The idea arose because of everything we had suffered and lost. Many of the women had lost their husbands, children, and many women had also lost their fathers, mothers and brothers. The cooperative’s goal was to help those women. Even though we don’t make that much money, it’s something we can contribute to the family, to help us. When our husbands aren’t home, we can help our children with school supplies or to buy a few treats from the street vendors. Now we have some money to buy something for the children, even if it’s shared around.
Oralia: I got involved because most Maya women don’t speak Spanish. They speak a Mayan language – we speak five different ones. All the women were older and I was the youngest, so I was still going to school. I began representing them, because the people who came to do the training only spoke Spanish. I was 14 years old when I started. I started with 60 women from my region, and we’re still there now.
Were there many challenges early on?
Amparo: It was always hard for us, because we only made our huipiles2. The people who trained us to use measurements and do the finishing work asked us for a lot of samples. At that time there were 26 of us, and they only selected 10 designs from those 26. So we accepted that and continued to work and improve and make new designs. We’ve been successfully working for more than 20 years in the cooperative.
There were also women who did not want to work there because they had children or a husband, and they didn’t speak Spanish. They spoke different Mayan languages. For instance, she (Oralia) speaks kaqchikel, I speak mam, and there are others who speak sutujil or quiché. We didn’t understand anything. That is why we have two representatives from each group. There are a total of 17 groups in the cooperative.
Oralia: When we started out, I’d say the main challenge was looking for markets where we could sell the products. Today, the challenge is the competition. Now there is a lot of competition in the handicraft industry. People from other companies take the designs. The product looks the same and people don’t know the difference. So that is a challenge for us.
What kinds of items do you typically weave at TRAMA Textiles?
Amparo: Each group has their specialty and designs. There are groups who make table runners, and others that make placemats, napkins, or tablecloths. There are groups who weave the fabric used to make purses, and other groups who weave the fabric for cushions or pillows, change purses and a variety of things with many designs. We also make scarves with beautiful designs. We have fabric in natural dyes, weavings, multi-coloured fabric, small pieces, cosmetic bags, key chains and bracelets.
Oralia: And the type of clothing we wear also identifies the region we’re from. For example, if we go to Guatemala City, people know where we’re from… She’s from Sololá, or she’s from Huehuetenango and so on.
What impact has the coop had on the women in the community?
Oralia: The biggest impact has been that the girls are now going to school. In the past, only the boys were allowed to study. Women were not given that opportunity, at least in the communities. In some places, women in traditional dress could not get work. There was tremendous discrimination, but now, thankfully, there are laws to protect Indigenous women. Women are now more involved, so that is a huge impact. Another impact is that women from TRAMA Textiles receive fair pay. Before, they worked for intermediaries who paid them very little, but now they earn a fair wage.
What does it mean to you to be here in Winnipeg, Canada, to share your story at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights?
Oralia: It means a lot to us, because we represent the 400 women weavers selling their products both in our country and abroad. So I am very grateful to the Museum for giving us the opportunity to show some of our products in the gallery and in the store. Our products are there, so I tell people that if they want to help our organization in Guatemala, they should go to the Museum3 to buy our good quality products to help the women.
Amparo: Yes, we are very grateful for the invitation to come here, because sometimes people think that because we wear traditional clothing we aren’t worth anything. But the experience here in this museum is very special, along with all the things in the exhibition and in the gallery.
1 Between 1960 and 1996, Guatemala experienced one of the most violent civil wars in the hemisphere. The war culminated in the establishment of an official policy of genocide against the Maya.
2 A traditional garment worn by Maya women in Guatemala and throughout Central America.