Saturday, January 23, 2010

Reaching Robertsport's girls

At the December meeting of the Women's Sewing Co-op, where we officially grew to 15 members from the 3 we started with in July, I was introduced to someone I thought looked a little young to be sewing bags for a co-op. "How old are you?" I asked, smiling innocently to disguise my concern. Bendu had already mentioned that Matilda's daughters have been enlisted to sewi her co-op bags, but I hadn't verified that this was true. "Thirteen," the girl responded quietly.

I waited a moment, smiled at everyone, and then noticed the women were looking at me expectantly. "I think," I said to Bendu, Tina and Matilda--who is now a team leader, "we need to be very careful about who is making the bags. We want to give women work, but we also want young women to stay in school and have time for play."

This is my UNICEF coming out--I'm second-generation, so it's especially easy to communicate key development messages with clarity. In this case, we can't have girls who should be in school making money sewing bags. That's child labor, not lifting a community out of poverty. It occurred to me that I should introduce the idea of child labor--and it's illegality--to the women.

"Also," I said, clearly my throat because now I was less sure of myself, "we sell these bags to America. People in America want to buy bags that are sewn by women and support them. They do not want young girls sewing these bags when they should be in school. If they knew that this was happening," and here I paused for dramatic effect, "they would not buy the bags." There was nodding, to show that I had been understood, and the 13 year old looked a bit sheepish.

Two issues.

First, if young women are sewing the bags for older Co-op members, not letting them into the Co-op isn't going to change that. However, stressing that each woman should be sewing her own bags--and that there are consequences for not doing so--could enforce a community norm (or encourage tattletales) to make sure that happens.

Interestingly, now that we have Co-op meetings and buy bags once a month, the women have said that they feel less pressure to produce such a high number of them. "That's funny," Nate responded after hearing how they would stress a bit, sewing late into the night and sacrificing quality in the process, "we keep worrying about not bringing you enough lapa to keep up with what you can sew." I think we've reached a more sustainable equilibrium now, and hopefully it will keep the work where we intend it--with the women co-op members.

Second, sending that girl away just means she can't participate in an income-generating project because we consider her (and legally she is) child labor. It doesn't mean she has anything she considers equally lucrative, fulfilling or valuable to fill her time with. I've been thinking about this one. Ideas and thoughts welcome.

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