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Empowering Women

From Asia to Africa to the Americas, women artisans are creating grassroots cooperatives to improve their standard of living and transform their communities. Whether weavers, painters, embroiderers, quilters or jewelry makers, women artisans can find strength in shared enterprises – and hope for human rights.

As one artisan in Rwanda puts it, “Weaving is hope for tomorrow.” 

Empowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives That Transform Communities tells inspiring stories about collaborative work that can advance human rights, including women’s right to work, to improve their standard of living, to reclaim culture, and to live in health and safety.

A virtual reality experience created by the CMHR immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of several women’s weaving groups in Guatemala. This story reveals that by getting organized, distributing and determining the price of their own textiles, the weavers are able to avoid financial exploitation by intermediaries. It also shows how keeping their artistic heritage alive helps to maintain their Indigenous identity – and aids healing from the trauma of genocide.  

The exhibition looks at cooperatives as agents of change in 11 countries: Bolivia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, Rwanda, South Africa and Swaziland.

Striking photography, compelling video and beautiful examples of the cooperatives’ handmade arts are showcased, such as embroidered story cloths, beaded neck collars and hand-dyed wool weavings.

Creative and financial empowerment can enable women who were previously voiceless and vulnerable to advance gender equality, care for people in need, become public leaders, develop literacy programs, heal from trauma, overcome domestic violence, sustain their natural environments and reinvigorate Indigenous cultures. A few examples from the exhibition:

  • In the lowlands of Nepal, women from the Maithili culture traditionally painted designs on the mud walls of their homes. When they started to paint the same designs on handmade paper, formed the Janakpur Women’s Development Center and found an outside market for their artworks, they secured a steady livelihood. “Now I can buy milk, pens and books, and pay the tuition for my children,” says artist Manjula Devi Thakur. “I’m strong now. I can move ahead.” 
  • In a village in Swaziland, more than 50 local women belong to a basket-weaving cooperative. Profits from it have been used to provide education, a soup kitchen, medicine and other services for hundreds of local children orphaned by AIDS. “Basket weaving has given us a voice in our community,” says weaver Nurse Thembeni Mdluli.   
  • In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) Trade Facilitation Center includes more than 3,500 artisan shareholders in 80 villages. The women – all home-based embroidery and textile artisans – are involved in every phase of the collectively owned business, from micro-financing to product development to quality control. 
  • In Bolivia, the Indigenous Ayoreo community traditionally wove bags from the fibres of a particular plant. When they were forcibly relocated more than 30 years ago, the Ayoreo found that the plant they needed was almost nonexistent. An ethno-botanist helped them learn to cultivate a similar variety. Today, the 45 women of the Cheque Oitedie Cooperative successfully harvest the plants and sell their hand-woven bags to an international market.
  • In Rwanda, two sisters created the Gahaya Links Cooperative after the genocide in that country.  In this artisan group, both Tutsi and Hutu women weave “peace baskets” in a spirit of healing.

This exhibition, curated by Dr. Suzanne Seriff, has been organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico and is circulated through GuestCuratorTraveling Exhibitions. In Winnipeg, it includes unique features developed by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. The Museum extends special thanks to supporting sponsor The Co-operators.