About the Artisans

Empowering Women explores how artisan cooperatives are transforming their communities in various countries. It incorporates beautiful examples of handmade arts, such as embroidered story cloths, beaded neck collars and hand-dyed wool weavings, and tells the how working collectively has enabled women to support their families, transform their communities and preserve their traditional arts.


Swaziland: Phez’kwemkhono Bomake-Ncheka Cooperative

Nurse Thembeni Mdluli, a basket weaver in Swaziland, organized women weavers in her village to form the Phez’kwemkhono Bomake-Ncheka Cooperative. More than 50 local women work together in the enterprise, earning money for their families. 

The cooperative also provides support for hundreds of children in the village who have been orphaned by AIDS.


South Africa: Mapula Embroidery Project

Maria Rengane, founder of the Mapula (Mother of Rain) Embroidery Project in South Africa, creates colourful quilts that raise awareness of human rights issues faced by her community. She and other women embroider scenes of daily life and of challenges such as local crime, unemployment, substance abuse and the stigma of living with AIDS. 


Nepal: Janakpur Women’s Development Center

In Nepal, women from the Maithili culture traditionally painted designs onto the mud walls of their homes for festivals and other occasions. In 1989, Claire Burkert, an American living in Janakpur, encouraged the women to paint their designs onto handmade paper. The artists formed the Janakpur Women’s Development Center, found an outside market for their artworks, and secured a steady livelihood. 


Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos): Ock Pop Tok

Ock Pop Tok means “East Meets West.” The name of this cooperative reflects the meeting in 2000 of Veomanee Douangdala of Laos and Joanna Smith of Great Britain. Douangdala is the daughter of a master weaver and Smith is a fashion photographer. 

The cooperative they co-founded grew in its first decade from a one-room studio to an internationally recognized producer and marketer, representing more than 200 women artisans. 


India: Self-Employed Women’s Association 

In the state of Gujarat, India, more than 3,500 women in 80 villages belong to the Self-Employed Women’s Association. The women are home-based embroidery and textile artisans. They are all shareholders, involved in every phase of the collectively owned business, from micro-financing and product development to pricing and quality control. 


Peru: Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco

Hand-woven textiles are a significant part of the cultural heritage of the Peruvian Andes. But Indigenous women in Peru have often felt ashamed of their traditional attire, due to a long history of discrimination. The knowledge and expertise required to weave traditional clothing was in danger of being lost.

Nilda Callañaupa Alvarez, whose grandmother was a Quechuan master weaver, founded the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco in 2005 as a way to sustain the hand-weaving tradition. Today, the women are making and wearing their traditional clothing again and the cooperative has expanded to include more than 350 weavers in nine regions. “My goal was to keep alive the culture,” says the founder.


Bolivia: Cheque Oitedie Cooperative

In Bolivia, the Indigenous Ayoreo people traditionally wove bags from the fibre of a forest plant called garabatá fino. When the Ayoreo were forcibly relocated to a reservation more than 30 years ago, they found that the plant they needed was almost nonexistent. An ethnobotanist helped them learn to cultivate a similar bromeliad plant.

Today, the 45 women of the Cheque Oitedie Cooperative successfully harvest the plants and market their hand-woven, dyed bags. Profits from selling the bags internationally amount to more than half of the community’s income. The women, as heads of their families in the Ayoreo culture, manage a collective bank account and determine how to spend the money they earn. 


Morocco: Women’s Button Cooperative of Sefrou

Amina Yabis, a stay-at-home mother, was unsuccessful when she ran for public office in Sefrou, Morocco, in 1997. This experience left her with a clear realization: to become successful in public life, women must have access to the cash economy. 
Yabis founded the Women’s Button Cooperative of Sefrou in 2000. The co-op makes and markets hand-knotted buttons, carrying on an artistic tradition that dates back generations. 


Kenya: Umoja Uaso Women’s Group

In 1990 in Kenya, 17 homeless women founded the village of Umoja Uaso. Umoja, which means “unity,” is a refuge for women who have survived rape, assault, forced marriage, genital cutting and other forms of abuse. The Umoja Uaso Women’s Group creates elaborately beaded jewelry and crafts, both traditional and contemporary.


Rwanda: Gahaya Links Cooperative

During the Rwandan Genocide in 1994, Hutus murdered some one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, leaving hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans. In the aftermath, sisters Joy Ndunguste and Janet Nkubana formed Gahaya Links. The cooperative members use traditional weaving techniques to make “peace baskets” as a way to foster healing and reconciliation for Hutu and Tutsi women, and to generate income.

From a humble start with about 20 women, the company has grown to a network of more than 4,000 weavers across the country. 


Guatemala: TRAMA Textiles

In 1988, a group of Mayan widows and female orphans, survivors of the Guatemalan Genocide (1981-1983), formed TRAMA Textiles to combine their weaving skills and provide for their families. These women are preserving the art of Mayan weaving, using the traditional backstrap loom. They have created safe spaces to share testimonies and experiences in order to heal from the horrors of the genocide. 

Today, the cooperative provides work for more than 400 women in a region where paid work is difficult to find. The women are guaranteed a fair wage for what they produce.