10/09/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Unbelievable Strength Of Women


People who know me, know why Cool Mom Picks is such a labor of love. As much as I love shopping and design and discovering some wonderful something-or-other that I know will help other moms, my real passion is supporting small business. Especially those run by women and mothers trying to support their families.

It's one of the things that's been so special for me this week in Ethiopia.

Liz Gumbinner at the FashionABLE factory in Ethiopia.

I watched my mother run her own business when I was a kid; a small handmade clothing label for children that she operated out of our attic. The same feelings bubbled up again in 1999, the first time we traveled together to Sarajevo, and talked to those seeking rehabilitation and aid through Women For Women International. We were there in part to hear their stories and bear witness, but also to give them practical tips on making and marketing scarves, slippers and other accessories that might have value in the US.

These weren't ordinary women; they were post-war refugees just more than 3 years after the signing of the Dayton Accord. Some lived in bombed out homes. Some had no homes. Many had been sexually abused by soldiers. Some lost children. Most lost husbands. My dear friend Tima called herself one of the lucky ones, because she still had her husband. Even if her whole extended family-perhaps 10 of them-were squatting together in a two room Serbian house that they could be evicted from every day.

One of the lucky ones.

And then she my hand in hers and pressed it to her throat so I could feel the metal shrapnel that lodged there.

I was 31. I had never imagined experiencing such a thing. Tim and I both had those things in common.

What still stays with me however, me was how amazingly strong these women were. Even at a time when they had every right to fall apart. They came to the center and leaned on one another for support, for therapy, to talk through the trauma over strong coffee and Drina cigarettes. And then they got on with their lives, devoting their energy to knitting, looming, crochet, so that they might acquire a skill that could keep their families clothed and fed.

You can imagine the flashbacks I had all morning today, spending time with the workers and staff making scarves for the non-profit, FashionABLE.

As I wrote in my post about fashionABLE last week, when I first received one of their beautiful scarves from the ONE Moms I ran right to my computer to learn more about the company and spread the word. They represent every value I love.

Visit the website and what you see is the result of their efforts: gorgeous, on-trend scarves (seriously, please buy one...or twenty) all beautifully handmade and hand dyed, with hang tags personally signed by the artist.

Dig further and you learn that it's a non-profit, meaning all the proceeds go towards helping the artisans, not only through wages but with medical care, medicine for TB or HIV, counseling, a housing stipend, educational tools and daycare for their children.

Meeting these women in person, in another decade, another continent, the universe is presenting me with yet another remarkable opportunity to soak in  strength and resilience of women.

Two of the women from fashionABLE plainly described their lives to us before they connected with Women at Risk and FashionABLE. Saba is 23. She as educated and living well until she turned 11 and her father died. The money ran out, her mother could no longer care for her, and moved away to live with relatives who never accepted her as their own. She tried waiting tables but couldn't make ends meet. That's when a neighbor introduced her to the far more lucrative prospect of commercial sex work.

We were informed that in Adis, tricks start at 25-30 cents. Only the highest paid prostitutes earn $15 for a single act.

There are 150,000 prostitutes in Adis. And just under 75% of them are HIV-positive.

Can you imagine feeling like that's the most reasonable choice for your survival? Selling your body for 25 cents? Well now it's not. When you buy a Saba scarf, you are giving her a better choice. You can also picture the gorgeous woman here. Meet Saba.

Another woman we met, Mulu, came to commercial sex work through a different and painful route. It became clear that with 20 women at FashionABLE right now, cach of them has a different story. Each of them has a same story.

And so far, they all have the same ending: a job. A trade. Confidence. Pride.

In fact 96% of the women working with FashionABLE through the years have made it through the program and stayed out of commercial sex work.

It's not because it's easy -- it's not. In fact a lot of them had to be retrained to work during the day and sleep during the night. The reason they're succeeding is because of that strength. Because of that pride.

You couldn't miss it on their faces. You couldn't miss it in the quality of their work.

I don't think one of us left their workshop with fewer than ten scarves each, to bring home for friends and family.

I wrote on Cool Mom Picks that at, the emphasis is on able. Now, I'm realizing the emphasis is equally on live.

Liz Gumbinner is the author of the blog, Mom101 and the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Cool Mom Picks. She is traveling in Ethiopia with ONE this October. This piece, originally published on Mom 101, is part of our ongoing coverage of the trip.

All photos are credited to the author Liz Gumbinner except the final photo by Karen Walrond.

I'm currently visiting Ethiopia courtesy of ONE, a nonpartisan advocacy organization fighting extreme poverty and preventable disease, especially in Africa. The more people who spread the word, the louder our voices, the more governments and foundations will keep the aid coming. If you can amplify our voices by tweeting, reposting, sharing our posts with your own networks it's all they ask of you-never money.

Learn more at the ONEMoms blog, see the rest of the trip team's blogs, and follow (and use!) the hashtag #ONEMoms on Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram.