Pioneering businesswoman, Edna Ruth Byler began a global fair trade movement 60 years ago, when she was deeply impacted by the overwhelming poverty of Puerto Rico in 1946. Byler’s strong belief that she could build sustainable economic opportunities for poor artisans resulted in the birth of Ten Thousand Villages…
The humble beginnings consisted of selling handicraft goods out of her car to friends and neighbors. Fast forward thirty years later…
The empowerment of women in developing countries, fostering self respect, economic opportunities, breaking the cycle of poverty and escaping from the sex trade – human trafficking is encompassed in the mission of this non-profit organization.
Ten Thousand Villages works with over 138 artisan groups in Africa Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. Their product line includes jewelry, ceramics, home décor, personal accessories, gifts, toys, musical instruments, baskets, and plant and garden items.
(This blogger can attest to the absolute uniquely intricate and beautiful products for the benefit and enjoyment of customers in other countries across the world! Website photos cannot compare to seeing their products in person at their many retail stores…)
During its 65 year history, Ten Thousand Villages has been named, “One of the world’s most ethical companies” in 2008, 2009, 2010 by Forbes Magazine and Ethisphere Institute.
To Rise Above- The Case of Bangladesh
Bangladesh’s population was estimated at 130,376,684 in 2002 or approximately 2,300 people per square mile with 60% under the age of 25 years.
Writer Linda Espenshade tells a compelling story for “A Common Place” publication of the Mennonite Central Committee/MMC (an affiliate of Ten Thousand Villages).
Ms. Espenshade writes about the typical lives of Bangladesh women. “Sharmin” was 12 years old when she met her future husband. Marriage is prohibited less than 18 years of age. However, the marriage was pre-determined. The man was twice her age and in love with another woman. A childhood lost…
Her first sickly child was born, not learning to walk until age three. Sharmin’s husband became ill and was unable to work. Starvation was a way of life. At the age of 15, the rent was due and she was desperate, as her husband’s family refused to assist. At age 15, Sharmin was forced into the sex trade to “pay the landlord” and to cover food and housing expenses.
The Cost and Human Toll of the Sex Trade
Monthly rent in Bangladesh is about 259 takas, or $3.50 American, whereas “sex work” pays well at 300 takas or $4.22 per night.
Along with such work comes intolerable pain and degradation.
Another woman called “Frazana” began in the sex trade at 9 years of age and is nearly 40 years old currently. She stated, “People would beat me up sometimes… If I stay in that life, I will be tortured and oppressed. It’s not bearable” (meeting 10 or 11 men per night).
Pobitra and Prokritee to the Rescue…
Pobrita is an MMC job training program in Bangladesh for former sex workers. Pobrita, roughly translated means “holiness, sanctity, the fresh cleanliness of a newborn.” In order to join Pobitra, participants must commit to leave their former sex trade. In exchange, MCC provides a basic salary, and a year-long training program including language skills, personal skills and job skills in order that participants would eventually be self-sustaining. The graduates make cinnamon soap under the artisan name “Sacred Mark.” Packaging of each bar of soap includes a poem by poet Rabindranath Tagore which talks about freedom from disgrace.
Although enrollees make only 100 taka (about $1.40 per day),
Recruiters/graduates tell others… “but there is love there.”
Probita staff serves as mentors and teach the basics – trying to resolve issues of cleanliness, parenting, and conflict resolution. They provide medical check-ups (including HIV, AIDS and STD’s)
Participants also learn how to communicate with respect and how to budget using “pure money.” Graduates are also instructed in tailoring, embroidery and blanket-making to make supplemental income.
According to the Ten Thousand Villages website, Prokritee means“nature” in Bengali. Prokritee is a product design and development agency that offers marketing assistance to handicraft organizations in Bangladesh. Their central offices and outlet store are located in Dhaka.
This agency provides skill development and jobs to rural poor women who are widows, divorced or heads of households. Prokritee is committed to developing marketable designs reflective of Bangladesh’s cultural heritage. Most importantly, they offer a means of replacing oppression and degradation of women with positive outcomes. Prokritee’s website is www.prokritee.com.
The Probita job training program has two social support workers who meet with Bengali women as well as their husbands, to improve communications and family relations. Approximately one third of the women enrolled in the program are married.
Within the community, they and their children are respected and accepted only if they relinquish their former sex trade lifestyles.
The former lifestyle is often hidden to newcomers. As an artisan, they can live a life of greater normalcy. Linda Espanshade’s article quotes a resident as saying… “If their husband’s beat them, neighbors promise to protect them.”
Sulta Johan is a coordinator of Pobitra. She sees progress and increasing strength and support offered amongst group members. “Suchona” is an example of what the incredible human spirit can endure. After a year’s time, she is now showing signs as a leader and is eager to learn new skills. In her former life, “Suchona” was contracted out to a man who imprisoned her foe two weeks in a graveyard hole during the day and forced her to have sex with men at night. She knows from whence she came…. and can help others in similar situations. (Suchona’s journey is available online at acommomplace.mcc.org).
Bengali women who work for Sacred Mark and distribute their goods via Ten Thousand Villages are incredulous about the change in their lives. “We never had dreams that we could come into such an environment to work… or make soap that would go around the world and that foreigners would come and sit and listen to us.”
Indeed…. to wash away the sins of the world!
For more information about Ten Thousand Villages, their products and their global projects visit: Tenthousandvillages.com.