WEAVE – innovating for refugee women

The year 2019 marks the 29th year of refugee confinement at the Thai-Myanmar border. The refugees have fled violence and fighting between the Myanmar Armed Forces and armed ethnic rebel forces. This prolonged encampment and with no clear sight and hope for the future has left the refugees and displaced persons despondent. Their everyday challenges are manifested by endemic poverty.

Refugee women are often faced with the incredible tasks of providing for themselves and for their children. The situation is exacerbated by other problems, including overcrowding, poor nutrition and sanitation, increased psycho-emotional problems and lack of economic opportunity. The authorities do not allow the refugees to leave or work outside the camps. An uncertain future is driving them to despair.

However, at the Karenni refugee camps and surrounding Thai communities populated by Karen hill-tribes in Mae Hong Son Province, change is taking place. A community of women have decided to mobilize themselves and to make a difference to their situation and WEAVE is working with them.  

Displaced people struggled to survive with aid allowances and economic and employment opportunities are extremely scarce. Access to income in the refugee camp is a rarity for women. Finding additional work outside puts them and their families at great risk, making them vulnerable to arrests and exploitation.  We found at WEAVE that access to income is one of the hindrances, particularly for women refugees. I always use this explanation as fitting under their circumstances “Poverty means more than having little or no income at all. It means missing opportunities because women lack power and voice. It means missing out because refugee and poor women are under counted, undervalued, under-served and underrepresented.”

WEAVE strongly felt the necessity and opportunity to offer alternatives towards economic self-sufficiency. Harnessing the strength of refugee women artisans – their ingenuity in traditional handicrafts (weaving, embroidery and hand stitching) and building enterprise acumen. Weave connects women artisans with the creative community of designers to come up with new product creations,  building entrepreneurial connection and long-term relationship with buyers that is transparent, respectful and nurturing. Local raw materials are sourced that are environmentally friendly, empowering women and enhancing their power to lead community enterprises to sustain change.  

Originally intended as an income generation activity, WEAVE’s intervention has evolved into a socially-driven enterprise now called WEAVE Fair Trade. Its singular purpose is to transition towards women’s economic empowerment and improved quality of life. WEAVE supports efforts of refugees and disadvantaged hill-tribe women to improve sustainable livelihoods. Through co-creating handmade products that blends contemporary with time-honored inspired designs, bringing them to market and contributing to the global handicrafts’ economy. They generate a safe, gainful and sustainable income, enabling increased self-reliance while ensuring cultural traditions thrive.

Over the years, WEAVE has provided direct assistance to more than 20,000 refugee women artisans in the design, production and marketing of beautifully handcrafted textile-based products. It has resulted in the provision of a safe income, addressing direct and immediate needs on food, health and education of the artisans and their families. Gradually women artisans, have been better able to support their families resulting in improved health and nutrition. Women increase their self-confidence through acquiring business acumen. Improved family relationships as well as credit-worthiness in their communities has increased their capacity to act as stewards of a safe, healthy and productive community.  Thus, WEAVE being a member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), ensures that women’s basic human rights are protected and advanced through gender equity, fair payment, non-discrimination, safe and good conditions in the workplaces and continuous capacity building.

Additionally, WEAVE Fair Trade is steering funds and opportunities toward initiatives that refugee women project participants deemed most important. This includes community savings, contribution to community development activities and special celebrations, health assistance and mortuary contribution. It facilitates on the-job-training and mentoring that is linked to textile-handicraft industry and supports poor women’s organizations by contributing to small scale innovative and impactful activities such as: growing and collection of natural/earth tone colors, dyeing and production of natural dye threads, jewelry making, greening and tree planting.  

The women artisans are highly engaged and are taking the lead in the decision-making process on what needs to be done. The enterprise realises that it is very important to link human development efforts to local community structures to ensure its sustainability and long-term viability. For the most vulnerable women artisans, WEAVE Fair Trade is translating more work opportunities, a safe and better living environment and steadier start to life despite the daily challenges they face. 

“I have been a refugee for almost half of my life. I arrived on the Thailand side of the border at the age of 18. I am now 38 years old. The war has torn my family apart as well as my village and we were left with nothing. Being a refugee is never easy and the uncertainty of what lays ahead is very scary! Weaving and learning new designs has helped me deal with my anxiety and fear. Every time I weave, I am weaving the story of my life. I re-create new patterns and designs and it gives me a sense of freedom and hope. I find comfort working with WEAVE and other Karenni refugee women, we do not only share each other’s challenges and difficulties, we also support each other. WEAVE provided that safe space for me and my friends to hope and dream for the future!" – Maw Pleh Meh is a Karenni refugee and has been a weave artisan for the last 7 years.

By Mitos Urgel
CEO, WEAVE Fair Trade