The challenge is to create job opportunities by establishing a sewing cooperative, a sense of community, and an innovative work environment for women who are heads of households, victims of domestic violence, and the political conflict in Colombia. We are working in La Merced, Colombia, a town controlled by the paramilitaries five years ago, when it had 13,000 inhabitants, since depleted to only 5,000. The town has an agriculturally based economy with few economic opportunities, and even fewer for its women and next generation. Anyone who can, leaves, either straight out of high school, or when the opportunity finally comes. Perhaps because of all the violence, or the general instability, it is difficult for the community to trust and invest in projects, so there is always a negative approach to change. The women who are a part of the project have been through terrible trials in their lives, and because of this we want to create more than a job opportunity. The goal is to change the environment completely from just being a lucrative endeavor to a place where they can feel supported and have a sense of ownership and investment in the work they do, and the future of their town.
Our solution is to put twelve sewing machines, offered to me by the Mayor’s Office to begin a sewing cooperative. I got together a group of the most marginalized women – most are heads of household, have been victims of domestic violence, or of the political conflict in Colombia, and some have the misfortune of being all three. We agreed to work together in order to make this project a reality. I have already interviewed many of them to find out more about their past, and gauge their willingness to participate. I also applied to “El SENA,” a government-sponsored education program, for a sewing course for the women, which was granted, and is expected to start this month.
In the past in La Merced, training or education projects end at this point, providing little opportunity for participants to make use of newly acquired skills. So, I also arranged for the town’s psychologist to provide group or individual therapy as a part of the routine, once the project is underway. The plan is for each woman to be paid for any garment she makes, but to have part of the payment go back into the cooperative, so they have ownership in the project by helping maintain it. There will be a schedule, allowing women to express their needs, and everyone will donate one afternoon per week to help fulfill needs on someone else’s list, be it babysitting or cooking, while the other works. I am searching for other innovative approaches to be able to change the typical work environment into one of support and multiple kinds of opportunities.