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Women find hope through economic development

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Sasha (Sarba Shanti Ayog), a not-for-profit marketing organization, was started in Calcutta, India, 31 years ago to help craftspeople earn a decent living through improving and better promoting their products. With sustainable employment, the craftspeople are able to stay in their villages “instead of migrating to the cities and living degrading lives,” said Sasha’s executive director Roopa Mehta.

Mehta spoke to a crowd of 200 on Mar. 27 at “Women’s Stories – Women’s Hope: An International Celebration.” Held in Kitchener, Ont., and co-hosted by Ten Thousand Villages and Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), the event featured two speakers, dance by a local Indian group, and Fair Trade treats.

Ann Gordon, senior consultant and project manager at MEDA told the story of Sarvenaz Hashemy who was left homeless after the Taliban burned her village home in Afghanistan. With MEDA’s assistance, she improved the production of vegetables in her garden. Hashemy’s profits help support her mother and sister. She has also been able to buy a house and a car, as well as build an underground storage area and greenhouse.

“I am the first woman driving in my province,” Hashemy reportedly said. “I am getting more respect for doing so.” Gordon said Hashemy’s progress is amazing, considering as many as 90 percent of women are illiterate in rural Afghanistan.

Over their 56-year history, MEDA has focused on alleviating poverty through business-oriented economic development programs. MEDA helped pioneer microfinance – giving small loans to people who most banks would never lend to – and still uses it as an important tool for improving lives.

Mehta, a highly educated woman who belongs to a number of national and international boards, said she is inspired by the women Sasha helps because “whatever input is provided, they receive with both hands and they run with it. They make so much out of a little bit.”

Women have “an enormous capacity to improvise,” said Mehta, and are quick to share with each other. As their economic status improves, women invest in better food, schooling, and health care for their children, and they contribute to their communities.

Crafts created by Sasha producers are sold at Ten Thousand Villages stores. As North America’s oldest and largest Fair Trade organization, their 50 stores, hundreds of festivals, and online shopping are an important international market for crafts, home decor, coffee, tea, jewelry, clothing, and more, for producers around the world who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed.

Sandra Reimer is a freelance writer and communication strategist. She attends Glencairn MB Church in Kitchener and enjoys drinking Fair Trade tea from Ten Thousand Villages.

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