By: Teisha Lowry Cox
Most of us want to improve: whether that be with our job, our relationships, career, personality, bank balance, that annoying yoga pose – we all strive to be better at being a human. I think most of us (myself included) take the little things in life for granted.
We spend so much time on improving that we sometimes forget how far we’ve actually come to create this incredible life and feel grateful for what we have. The question remains: will we ever be satisfied? Probably not hey, but that’s ok I think it’s within us, especially if we come from a competitive nature. We all have millions of things to be grateful for, just look down at your feet right now, what are you wearing – Gucci’s? The latest Nikes? Diamantes in your flip-flops? For me: comfy warm uggs. The gist of this is: We are so damn lucky and we sit here complaining about the smallest things when > there are women and children who are living in the most unimaginable conditions, enduring harsh discrimination as a result of being disabled or abandoned from domestic violence, trafficking and prostitution to child sexual abuse and harmful traditional practices, and right down to the simple things such as reading, writing and counting. THIS is real. THIS is happening. THIS is about change and THIS is something as women we need to be doing…
Empowering other women and improving the world we live in.
When I heard about Seven Women: Empowering marginalised women through skills training and employment, I immediately contacted the founder Stephanie Woollard about doing an interview for INDAH Inspires. I thought oh yeah this will be nice to feature such an inspiring story but it was challenging to get some of her precious time. I knew deep down inside of me I couldn’t give up, so I kept hassling Steph and I finally had my opportunity, and boy - all I can say - it was bloody worth it. Steph isn’t one for writing her answers, and nor does she like to talk about herself so I got her on the phone for half an hour and she passionately talked about her wonderful projects for her charity Seven Women and why when you give, you get way more than you ever thought imaginable in return.
How Steph founded Seven Women and why Nepal:
After high school, I went on a trip to Nepal to volunteer through the Duke of Edinburgh and that was a three month tour to build schools in remote communities or help the locals to build new schools and I was really inspired by the generosity and the hospitality of the Nepalese people, but it was also my first experience of seeing poverty at that level. I went back there as a tour leader with the Duke of Edinburgh leading groups of architects over to Nepal, and on one of those trips, I met seven women who were living and operating out of a tin shed and they were all disabled in some way. I went back to that tin shed every day for about two weeks and was wondering: how I could support them as an individual? So with $200 left that I had, we decided with that money to hire two trainers to come in and train them in a skill, which ended up being knitting, because the wool is readily available to access in the local markets again and again. That’s how it all began. After that, I started bringing the products back to Australia to sell them and with that money it went back to Nepal to firstly set up a room for these women to stay in and a bathroom for keeping themselves clean. From there, they develop different roles and it became kind of an operating center. We started to employ more and more women as we could then make and sell products to raise money and that grew and grew. By word of mouth we had different women coming to the center with not only disabilities but mothers, widows, and situations of domestic violence, we couldn’t have the capacity in that center which was very basic to be able to accommodate everybody, so we wanted to open another center and rent another building in Katmandu to accommodate some of these women and that’s when we started the second center which is now our Headquarters and that’s where we’ve launched our rural and remote village programs all around in and Nepal.
We now have over 5000 women and we started ten years ago from seven.
Steph explains what Fair Trade really means to Seven Women:
We don’t have the logo or the accreditation because for us it just works better to employ fair trade principles, which is basically: treat your workers fairly and make the supply chain equal and just. We are an organization set up for that purpose so of course we’re going to pay the staff fair wages for the work that they’re doing and 100% of the profits go back anyway to develop our organisation. It is an interesting topic to talk about because I think sometimes even the accredited companies it is not working as well as it should be for the employees, in our situation it’s quite expensive and involves a lot of paperwork and things to get that accreditation and it’s quite difficult as well because we’re not coffee, tea or cotton where you can trace the whole supply chain. Sometimes we might buy threads or materials from the local market and mainly wool which is exported from Australia and New Zealand, and so then our women will make products out of that material. The 10 fair trade principles are a good guideline to go by for example no child labor, proper facilities for the women, running water and that sort of thing at the center, we naturally employ them at our center and it makes sense and it serves the women that come in.
Sewing what you reap on another level:
When the women come to our center our three main programs are literacy, skills training and income generation so it provides a lot of opportunities for the women to become independent. Once they learn literacy, they then understand how to learn numbers and they have strong sense of confidence, mobility and independence after that and when they can read signs when traveling it makes them feel more secure. Skill training provides them with skills that they can then earn an income and from there we support them to open a bank account, there’s a lot of steps of progress along the way, and it takes time, but they can take as long as they need to complete our classes. Once they have these skills they become employable and go about finding a job outside of Seven Women or they can work with us or start their own business if they want to do that. It gives the women a lot of options, and this is the difference with us as a lot of organisations have set training for one or two months, but a lot of the women we get coming through the center have different disabilities or different mental tensions from being abused and things like that, so some can be fast and some can be slower, we really adapt to the individual to the program and for how long they need to learn those skills. In terms of all success stories – they’ve all definitely progressed in life and they really appreciate what we offer, some get married and have returned to their villages and become mothers and some have used the skills that they’ve learnt at Seven Women, but what they all take away is that sense of empowerment and women’s rights, freedom of choice and independence.
On turning ten:
I think the most rewarding thing for me is seeing transformation in the women and also it’s very humbling to see women that come to the center from desperation and suffering. When they come in from being abandoned from their husband, or they’ve been stranded by their family or they’ve been beaten every day, that is a powerless situation and then seeing that progress sometimes takes years and sometimes it only takes months for them to drive their own futures. There was one girl, and her bones weren’t formed properly at birth so she’s quite different to look at and received a lot of ridicule in her life, she use to wear a mask over her face when she went out in public and yet now she is very confident and has a role at the center as a literacy teacher every day at 4pm, she does the book-keeping and now she’s very confident within herself and it doesn’t bother her anymore like it use to, so seeing that transformation is very rewarding. I also have a tour company in Nepal, and the women are involved in becoming tour leaders and showing groups of Westerners around and this is another level of confidence as they need to be able to lead international guests around.
The future vision for Seven Women:
In Nepal we want to expand into remote villages by giving women teacher training at our center with literacy classes to train other women in their villages and how they can learn and earn income and even start their own businesses. We plan to expand into three to five villages a year doing that, and also create the best cooking school in Nepal. We run cooking classes for tourists at the center, and they’re really good and the women teach the Westerners about how to make a product using Fair Trade principles and how hand-made things are actually made. There’s a lot of interest with different tour companies bringing their groups to the centers for that, so the immediate plan is to develop the cooking school within one to two years at the center.
If there is any spare time Steph likes to:
I enjoy going to the movies and I love to travel. My favorite film is Beneath The Clouds, which explores the difficulties and complexities growing up as an Indigenous Australian.
How we can help:
The Seven Women story has been turned into a documentary by film maker Kim Ramsay and as part of our celebration of 10 years running, we are aiming to release this awe-inspiring full-length documentary which follows the stories of several women in Nepal, each representing challenges women face globally – domestic violence, discrimination, lack of education, poverty, young marriage, risk of human trafficking and exploitation. Our documentary maker has been following our work for the past four years, traveling to Nepal and documenting the empowerment of women in our programs. It shows the impacts of literacy, skills training, and income generation and brings awareness of important global issues. We have recently screened in Sydney and Melbourne is next (although sold out) but people can potentially host a screening, and volunteer to different things such as signing up as an ongoing donor to $20, $40 and $60 per month, which will not only helps us build a relationship with our donors but gives us the ability to plan and expand into how many villages we can expand into and to how soon.
The best thing is when people come to Nepal and they get to experience our work and they can come onto a tour, and they become long-term supporters and volunteering with us. It’s a very life-enriching experience for both participants and for the people they visit in Nepal.
Learn more and please show your support:
Seven Women has all the products available online and they are looking for more retailers to take on these amazing hand-made gifts such as pashminas, toys, rugs and clothing, and if you want to experience Nepal and Seven Women at a grassroots level they run four tours per year at Hands On Development.