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Oppression into Opportunity: How Ethical Shopping Can Hold Up Half the Sky

09/27/2012 05:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 27, 2012
  • Francine LeFrak Social entrepreneur, film producer, and Founder of fair trade jewelry company, Same Sky

At the artisan market in Nairobi, Kenya, Rebecca Lolosoli stands vibrantly, showcasing her traditional African Masai headdress, intricately beaded collars, necklaces and bracelets. Rebecca, in her quintessential African garb, is the living example of what women's empowerment looks like -- the beadwork she so proudly drapes herself in is the work of 48 women who have left the capital city to live 380 miles away in rural northern Kenya, crafting beads, using their artisan skills, and relying on conscientious consumerism to rebuild their impoverished and abused lives.

This small village, named Umoja, is the only place in north Kenya where women are not treated as second-class citizens. Rebecca founded Umoja, the women's-only village, because of the repetitive gender-based violence, forced marriage, and female genital mutilation that has haunted Kenyan women for generations. These women took matters into their own hands, moving to their own village where crafting jewelry for tourists provides them with the safety and the income to survive. Often times their world is not easy, having to travel full days to Nairobi to buy beads not even made in Africa, rather imported from the Czech Republic. Rebecca and others at the village schlep 70 pounds of beads on their heads back and forth to live and work in their safe zone. Essentially, in Umoja, artisan work and ethical shopping are the means to living a life free of oppression.

Umoja's tremendous story is just one of several issues presented in Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, the incredible socio-documentary based on the book by Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn that premieres Oct. 1 and 2 on PBS.

The majority of women featured in this documentary have known only misery. The film sheds much needed light on the daunting issues of our time, like the 2.7 billion people (40 percent of the world's population) who live on less than $2 a day. But at the end of the day, the film resonates with an underlying ode to resilience and a fierce determination that these women's children will live much better lives. In the stories of resilience there is an emphasis on Westerner's capability to harness change in the developing world.

In the beginning of the film Nicholas Kristof states, "We have won the lotto of life," referring to being born in the first world. And with that privilege comes great responsibility.

Many people disregard their responsibility, not out of apathy, but out of an overwhelming unknown of how or where to start. Half The Sky is exactly where to start -- the film demonstrates that economic empowerment is the main ingredient to stop the cycle of women's oppression. Economic empowerment means that women have the resources and a marketable skill to create a self-sustaining future. But to nurture this thought, we must be careful what we consume.

Before we consume, we must think what kind of world do we want to live in? We must acknowledge that our everyday choices are determining the lives of women in the developing world. Fair-trade initiatives don't always make their way to the mainstream, but with the Internet we can and do have the power to consume for the betterment of the world. Or as Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women, said in Half The Sky, we can live in "a world where whatever we buy: oil, a car or a pair of boots, we think about the impact of women."

I am devoted to creating the type of world that Zainab is referring to. At Same Sky, the jewelry company I founded in 2008, we employ HIV-positive women artisans in Rwanda and Zambia to craft jewelry for a wage that is 15 to 20 times the average Sub-Saharan salary. We believe in the power of global consumers to help women rebuild their lives. In order to create the demand, we demonstrate how you, the consumer, become a part of the artisan's story. When you purchase a necklace, Clemantine, a Rwandan genocide survivor, can now pay school fees for her children and Brigitte a victim of rape, now has health insurance, and hot food to take her HIV medication with. But we have only found success in helping these women because we have provided the women with the tools, a sophisticated design, and the training to crochet jewelry that appeals to the global marketplace. We find that our customers become addicted to this idea of buying something that is both chic and trendy, yet resonates with a much deeper value of empowering women a world away. In fact, 52 percent of our customers are repeat customers, essentially hooked on feel-good shopping.

Sometimes in the West we don't realize just how powerful we are. By purchasing FEED bags Westerners have given over 60 million school meals to children around the world, and provided 46,000 children with nutrition supplements. By shopping and supporting the Somaly Mam Foundation we are helping young women and girls rebuild their lives after being born into brothels as sex slaves. Likewise, Nomi Network's "Buy Her Bag Not Her Body" campaign empowers victims of human trafficking with fair trade employment. Now high-end fashion is joining the novelty with Donna Karan in Haiti, Diane Von Furstenberg in Kenya, and Urban Zen, to name a few.

But what most any fair-trade initiative lacks is the consumer's demand. We need to convey that investing in women is not only morally correct; it is also the smart thing to do. Hillary Clinton said in the film, "It is without contradiction that when women participate in the formal economy of their society, the [entire] economy grows. Unleashing the economic potential of women is a win-win strategy."

As the holidays approach, and people are eager to over-spend, we hope that Half The Sky encourages people to consume ethically and to understand the power and potential of their decisions. As Sheryl WuDunn said in Half The Sky, "You don't have to dedicate your life to the movement, just dedicate your skill, or a part of your time and you will become a part of the movement." Start your involvement with this movement by tuning in to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's masterpiece, Half The Sky, premiering on Oct. 1 and 2.

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