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Ethical Handbags: Empowering Women Through Weaving

Rise womens handmade karen hill tribe Thailand textiles artisan

Daughters Rising is a human rights, non-profit organization that supports, educates, employs and empowers ethnic Karen women taking refuge from Burma in Thailand. Their sister company RISE is the eagerly anticipated ethnic and ethical handbags collection combining Italian leather and tribal textiles, hand made by Karen artisans in their villages.

In October 2015 I arrived at the Daughters Rising residence in Mae Wang to humbly volunteer my fashion expertise to aid the development of their promising new project. My aspirations were to learn from the inside out about Karen culture and to participate in the launch of a collaborative ethical handbags collection with an ethnic minority group. This has been the most profound and insightful experience of my adventures around Asia so far, leading to a change in my perspective and purpose for traveling in the future. In order to understand the ugency for such a project I will explain a brief history of the shocking situation that has hundreds of thousands of Karen people in this position.


Rise womens handmade karen hill tribe Thailand textiles whyDisclaimer: Before I start explaining and sharing my experiences of the past week I want you to understand that I am in no way an expert about the political actions and human rights concerns that surround the situation in Burma.  All of the information contained in this post I have educated myself about in the last week via personal discussions with team members at Daughters Rising, Karen refugees working at Chai Lai Orchid and surrounding villages and using the links and resources listed below. If you see anything incorrect please politely advise in the comments at the end of the post. Thank you.

Ethnic Cleansing

200km away from the Daughter’s Rising residence is the border of Burma where approximately 140,000 ethnic minority Burmese refugees are living in makeshift villages. They fled their homes over 30 years ago when the Burmese authoritarian military Junta began state sponsored ethnic cleansing of minority people who did not consent to their vision for the future of Myanmar. Persecuted ethnicities include Shan, Mon, Karenni, Arkanese, Rohingya and Karen people who in 1948 when Burma became independent from the UK wanted the right to govern their own states.  Initially the junta only attacked the armed minority defences and rebels but soon after they began repeated massacres of peaceful ethnic villages in rural areas, burning them to the ground and orchestrating heinous crimes against humanity.

Refugee Rights

Refugees have no ID card in the country they are occupying, under Thailand’s domestic law refugees are seen as visa overstayers and therefore criminals. It is also a criminal offence to shelter a Burmese refugee in your home. Refugee camps allow people to meagerly exist. Refugees are dependant on depleting international and outside aid as they are not allowed to work or leave the camp. After 30 years many residents have only known the confides of their camps and very little else about the outside world.

“It is so strict to live here. There is nothing to do. I am not allowed to go outside the camp. There is no job, no work. So much stress and depression. I feel that I am going to go crazy here.” (Burmese refugee, Nu Po camp, Tak province, January 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2012e, p. 18)

Refugees are the easiest and most vulnerable targets to sex traffickers. Uneducated and desperate to support their families young girls are often lured away by the prospect of working in the city as a maid in a hotel or maybe behind a bar. They are tricked into believing they will gain an ID card, a place to live, minimum wages and new clothes. Grievously however once out of sight women are locked in room and beaten until they yield. They are told that if they try to escape and don’t prostitute themselves their family will be killed and their sisters will be joining them in the whore house.

Rise womens handmade karen hill tribe Thailand textiles artisan

Rise founders Allie Fite and Hannah Herr sit discussing design ideas with the Karen women at a local village near Mae Wang.


Daughters Rising 

 

“Our mission is to empower at-risk girls through education to end trafficking and exploitation in their communities and break the cycle of inter-generational poverty”

 

Daughters Rising employs and educates young girls and women from surrounding ethnic minority villages at their non-profit social enterprize Chai Lai Orchid. Located in Mae Wang only 1 hour from Chiang Mai city in North Thailand, Chai Lai Orchid is an amazing project in its 3rd year of successful sustainable development. When founder Alexa Tkawpa asked the girls in surrounding Karen and Kayen refugee villages what they aspired to do in their lives, they informed her how they wanted to work in Thailand’s growing tourism industry, so Alexa opened Chai Lai to give the girls the chance they deserve. 

Alexas organisation not only accommodates and trains the girls in all areas of hospitality, English and computer skills but also shows them how to be mentors and roles models to their families and communities. The aim is to inform girls of their human rights, think independently, recognise potential threats and inspire the next generation of young women to believe in themselves and achieve their goals.

 

“Education is more than just reading and writing. RISE aspires to educate girls so that they are aware of their rights and can make their own decisions about their bodies, their health, their relationships, and their future.” 

 

Rise karen ethnic textiles thailand daughters rising

Young Karen and Kayen apprentices at Chai Lai Orchid Eco Lodge having an English lesson with Verina one of the many awesome volunteers.


Why Women?

 

“When women and girls earn income, they reinvest 90% of it into their families, as compared to only 30-40% for a man. “

 

In remote indigenous communities in North Thailand, drug use, alcohol abuse and gambling is rife amongst men. These problems perpetuate and contribute to the cycle of poverty. Putting money into the hands of mothers, instead of fathers, is more likely to improve the quality of life of the entire family and break the cycle of poverty.

“At Rise we aspire to empower mothers to empower their children.”

 

Rise womens handmade karen hill tribe Thailand textiles weaving

Community of young women at Maw Wah Kee village operating back looms to weave fabric from their homes.


Weaving for Empowerment

As the popularity of the program at Chai Lai Orchid grew, so did the ever pressing desire to support more women. Although the young girls opted for training in hospitality, not every women was able to nor wanted to leave their families and villages.

Looking at Karen culture from the outside it is almost impossible to avoid seeing women weaving in their homes on a daily basis. As with many Asian hill tribes traditionally both Karen men and women communicate their cultural identity through the daily wear of their clothes. Cotton cloth is woven in bright colours and intricate decorative patterned boarders and fringing. That’s when Allison Fite a long-standing full-time volunteer at Daughters Rising suggested collaborating with the women to create a contemporary range of fashion accessories.

Preservation of the craft is also crucial right now as many young Karen people often face racist slurs in when seen in cities wearing their traditional dress. It is their clothes that makes them identifiable to the military Junta in Burma and as refugees in foreign countries. This make a new generation feel scared and ashamed to represent their culture and wear their clothes in public for fear of being recognized, discriminated against and possibly even murdered.  

The forthcoming collaboration with Rise will combine traditional Karen weaving with Italian leather in trend focused designs appealing primarily to European and US fashion lovers. Once in production the Karen girls and women will not only feel a sense of pride but recognise that the beauty of their heritage also holds the possibility to produce profit and push themselves out of poverty.

Rise womens handmade karen hill tribe Thailand textiles warp loom

Preparing warp threads for the back loom.


 

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Beautiful Karen elder wearing traditionally woven shirt, sarong and jewellery


Design Development

I arrived at Daugthers Rising surprised to see that the project was in full swing. Impressive samples had returned from the manufacturer and fabrics from the women were piling up thick and fast. Primarily it was my role to support, suggest and problem solve various aspects of Allie and Alexa’s vision for the brand.

We evaluated and developed various design ideas into different scales and colour ways, edited photography for the up and coming e-commerce site, made paper prototypes of bags for the manufacturer, amended specifications to samples and prepared paperwork for grant applications. On 2 occasions I was also able to visit the women in local Karen villages and learn about the intricate weaving techniques they employ to make design ideas a reality (I will publish a separate post on the art of Karen weaving in the coming months).

Rise karen ethnic textiles thailand design

My design variation of Karen weaving for a new bag now in production.

 

Rise karen ethnic textiles thailand

Rise founder Allie reviewing the Karen textiles made for the new collection of ethical handbags


 

Rise karen ethnic textiles thailand village

The moment of pride as Allie shows one of the first ethical handbags back from the leather manufacturer incorporating the Karen womens own hand woven textiles.


Practice with Purpose

I was at Daughters Rising for a total of 9 days and in that time I can sincerely say that the experience has been one of the most valuable of my life. A good friend of mine said that volunteering changes you, and I totally agree with that. The nature of traveling itself means that you are never normally in one place for a long period of time, this makes it harder to connect with people on an authentic level. Combine that with language barriers and cultural differences, volunteering allows you to overcome time sensitive obstacles and connect concepts in the context of real people’s lives.

It was also very empowering to be present with other women’s empowerment volunteers, it was like being part of a sister hood of change makers that really loved their life helping others. I felt so honoured to be included and surrounded by positive, creative and caring people who contributed so much more than their just their time. Friendships, love, ambition, hope, pride, day after day I watched their positive engery infect others and witnessed how they brought the cultural gap of western tourists to the lives of these Karen women and girls closer together.

volunteers at Daughters Rising

Some of the awesome familia at Daughters Rising From left: Nok Koon, Oum, Allie, Dr Amy, yours truly, Dr Mairay, Claire, Bow and Bay.


It really has been one of the best weeks for exploring and understanding the purpose of my travels and research. I feel so moved by Alexa and Allies profound and dedicated efforts to create a sustainable environment that supports and nurtures at risk women from ethnic minority groups. I hope I can grow to be half as helpful and inspirational to others in the future. I realised from my involvement that for how ever much I love being a fashion and fabrics fanatic, there is so much more meaningful value and purpose unearthed when emerging oneself into understanding the social, political and economic circumstances that have contributed how people chose to communicate their identity.

In Burma, Karen, Kayen and other ethnic minorities are not allow the freedom of expressing their identity, they live in disguise to avoid persecution and inconceivably even inhalation. Highlighting just how inspiring and poignant the Daughters Rising’s RISE  project really is. 

Rise womens handmade karen hill tribe Thailand textiles warp


How you can help?

  1. Donate to Daughters Rising. Daughters Rising is a volunteer supported organization so that 100% of your donation goes directly to programming in South East Asia. Make a donation now and join us in our fight to end sex trafficking, by ensuring the programs you care about are available to the girls who need it.

  2. Sponsor a Karen Child to go to school for $1 a day. The ideal christmas present, you can do this as a individual, family or workplace!

  3. Sign up to the RISE mailing list to find out when the project launches in 2016.

  4. Like the Daughters Rising and Rise facebook pages.

  5. SHARE this post with your friends to raise awareness of the project.


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VOLUNTEERING IN THAILAND


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Useful References

  1. http://daughtersrising.org/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_people 
  3. http://www.karen.org.au/karen_people.htm
  4. www.khrg.org 
  5. http://womentravelblog.com/destinations/thailand-long-neck-karen-people/
  6. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/17/rohingya-burma-refugees-boat-migrants
  7. http://www.culturalorientation.net/learning/populations/burmese
  8. https://refugeesg.wordpress.com/about-the-refugees/
  9. http://www.burmalink.org/background/thailand-burma-border/displaced-in-thailand/refugee-camps/
  10. http://www.womenslaw.org/gethelp_national_type.php?type_id=1063 

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  • Amanda Williams
    November 23, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    This must have been an awesome experience. What a great project!

    • donna
      November 24, 2015 at 1:51 am

      Thank you Amanda, it is a very worthy cause

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