2017 marks the 27th year of refugee confinement and the existence of WEAVE on the Thai-Myanmar border. This prolonged encampment and with no clear sight of the future makes the life of Karen and Karenni displaced people very hard. Their everyday challenges marked by mass poverty and despondency are compounded by a number of other problems, including over-crowding, poor nutrition and sanitation, lack of economic opportunity, inability to work outside the refugee camps, and a highly competitive labour market. However, in the Karenni refugee camps and surrounding hill-tribe villages in Mae Hong Son Province, change is taking place as a result of the support extended by Women’s Education for Advancement and Empowerment (WEAVE).
The project started as an income generation activity in mid-90’s and evolved into a socially-driven business now called WEAVE Fair Trade. Its singular purpose was to transition towards women’s economic empowerment and improved quality of life. Displaced people struggled to survive with aid allowances and economic and employment opportunities are extremely scarce. Access to income in the refugee camp, least safe is a rarity for women. Finding additional work outside puts them and their families at great risk, making them vulnerable to arrests and exploitation. Ms. Mitos Urgel the Executive Director of WEAVE explains that access to income is one of the hindrances, particularly for women. “Poverty means more than having little or no income at all. It means lacking control over income, even in the family. It means missing opportunities because women lack power and voice. It means missing out because refugee women are under counted, undervalued, under served and underrepresented.” WEAVE felt the necessity and opportunity to offer alternatives towards economic self-sufficiency and this includes building on the strength of refugee women artisans – their ingenuity in traditional crafts-making, including weaving and embroidery.
Over the years, WEAVE’s intervention provided direct assistance to over 15,000 refugee women artisans in the design, production and marketing of beautifully handcrafted textile based products. The project resulted in the provision of safe income addressing direct and immediate needs on food, health and education of the artisans and their families. Slowly and step by step, women artisans, their children and families have improved their health and nutrition. Women have increased self-confidence and decision-making ability, enhanced skills and competencies; improved family relationships; improved credit-worthiness in their communities and improved role and status at home and within their communities. 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, the project is steering funds and opportunities toward initiatives that refugee women project participants deemed most important, such as community savings, as contribution to community development activities and special celebrations, health assistance, mortuary contribution. The project also conducts on the-job-training that is linked to textile-handicraft industry (weaving, sewing and embroidery) and supports poor women’s organizations by contributing to innovative small business development activities such as: vegetable growing, household domestic animal raising, dried fish production (food processing), jewelry making (pearl) and project and organizational development enabling self-managing and self-governing women’s organizations.
The women project participants are highly engaged and are taking the lead in the decision making process on what needs to be done. The project realizes that it is very important to link human development efforts to local community structures in order to ensure its sustainability and long-term viability. For the most vulnerable women, the project is translating into more work opportunities, a better living environment and steadier start to life despite the challenges they face as refugees/displaced persons.
“I’ve 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 has helped me deal with my anxiety and fear. Every time I weave, I am weaving the story of my life. I create new patterns and designs and it gives me a sense of freedom and hope. I find comfort working with 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! – Maw Lu Meh is a Karenni refugee and a #weavewomen weaver in the last 5 years now.