Here’s the brief backstory on why I started She Made This.
In late 2014 I was packing up to return to NZ after a year of exciting travels and a few months based in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. It’s a city of 17 million people, a shock in itself. Crowded roads, cultural differences, interesting people and places to visit created an unforgettable experience.
Dhaka is known as the rickshaw capital of the world. Approximately 400,000 rickshaws run each day. Cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws are the main mode of transport, with close to 400,000 rickshaws running each day – the largest number for any city in the world.
It is not uncommon to see passengers perched on the roof of a train (left) or to be squashed by two buses as lanes on the road seem to have no meaning. The use of horns prevails as you continually dodge traffic in a game of cat and mouse. Driving in Dhaka is not for the faint hearted. We were grateful to have a patient yet assertive driver who rarely used the horn.
I had joined my husband who was contracting for a big health research institute in Dhaka. Together with our gap year daughter, I did some volunteer work and immersed myself in researching ways to use my skills and passions to “make a difference” somehow. We visited fair trade shops to assess the quality of handicrafts and learn more about the artisans who created the pieces.
Buried in a borrowed book about the ‘real Dhaka’ I found mention of a Fair Trade NGO. I was intrigued and felt compelled to get in touch. The next day I met the inspirational female CEO – Kohinoor. By the end of our chat we had bonded. She suggested a partnership enabling me to sell their products into New Zealand. The NGO’s ethos, life-changing business model and sales success for their high quality products in Europe and many other markets made the offer irresistible. I took the plunge.
It wasn’t just about the products. It was their vision to “establish a just and poverty free society through the economic empowerment of women”. I liked what I saw. They have a network of 18,000 marginalised rural women doing piece-work to order. The charity was set up in the 1970s, soon after Bangladesh won its war of independence. After a few years the focus shifted from relief work to transformational empowerment. This secular not-for-profit works with some of the poorest people in Bangladesh. A team of expert craftswomen and designers assemble the products in Dhaka, and also create numerous ranges of jute bags and baskets themselves. The charity is developing entrepreneurs and providing gender rights training and personal and family health services.
They also have a safe house for women (and their children) in extreme situations and train these women up in various skills they can use to develop their own sustainable businesses and there is a creche provided for the children of staff.
“With the opportunity to develop their skills and to realise their potential, these women are empowered economically,” Kohinoor told me. “Their status in their families and communities grows, giving them confidence, self-worth and joy. Gradually, an increasingly gender-balanced society is developing.”
My time with the charity left me in no doubt their work was critical. I met a woman who had been rescued from prostitution. Her then boyfriend was her pimp. Other women had been rescued from abusive relationships or had been widowed and left to fend for themselves and their children. They had lived in circumstances we could scarcely imagine. As a mother of two daughters I found it heart wrenching to see the reality of the plight of so many women in the world.
I left knowing there had to be some way to create a partnership with this amazing organisation and its charismatic CEO. After a lot of research and planning, She Made This was given an informal launch in December 2015. Just over two months later, the first shipment to New Zealand of fair trade products from my new NGO friends arrived. A big personal milestone and another step toward security and empowerment for thousands of women in Bangladesh.