Things have quieted down for Invisible Children since the viral Kony 2012 campaign and some negative publicity on one of its founders.
One of the nonprofit’s lesser known programs, Mend, has been helping Ugandan women since 2009 work toward financial independence by giving them a place to use their tailoring skills.
Many of the women had escaped abuse from the Lord’s Resistance Army rebels and received counseling and training in rehabilitation centers. Through the Mend program, the women also learn how to save and reinvest their earned money in other businesses. They meet in groups of 25 to 30 to keep each other accountable, relying on group-generated credit and interest and group-led management of loans.
We were excited to learn more about the story of each Ugandan seamstress, and about the program from Jared White, social enterprise director of Mend:
I’m familiar with the work of Invisible Children, and I read about how many of these women came out of rehabilitation centers with tailoring skills. Could you take me back to the beginning?
As so many women in northern Uganda pursue tailoring as a profession, the markets are subsequently flooded, creating an environment where it is nearly impossible to support a sustainable livelihood…
On top of their inability to find sufficient work, formerly abducted females and their children are commonly ostracized and stigmatized due to their previous association with the LRA. They have difficulties reintegrating into their communities, and many are banished from their families and former homes.
I read that women receive lessons in savings and investment, literacy and budgeting for their future entrepreneurship. What other social programs do you offer?
The women have opened individual savings accounts, which allow them to receive necessary medical care, as well as pay school-related fees for their children. Mend beneficiaries also attend training sessions held in conjunction with partner NGOs on topics such safe health practices, family planning and coping with psychosocial trauma.
Mend has been around for four years. How did you start a whole new social enterprise from scratch? How did you end up creating a business plan where the profits could go back into the good work that you do?
This is a difficult question(s) to answer, but put simply we identified a skillset possessed by vulnerable women that could produce a product that is “needed indefinitely” in the global market.
We learned about the women through the story of the conflict and how women who escaped from captivity with the LRA receive rehabilitation and training in tailoring (from NGOs like World Vision)…
It’s taken a few years to refine the structure of the business to ensure that we succeed in putting the welfare of the women first. We’ve also been able to identify qualified/skilled staff locally through a recruitment process.
The designs are pretty contemporary. Do the women seamstresses design the messenger bags and tote bags?
When we introduced leather into our bag in late 2011, they had to learn a brand new method for sewing and a new level detail they’d never experience before.
In the beginning, we had our hesitations. But as with most things, we were amazed at the persistence and progress the ladies made. As each bag became more complex, so has the scope of the seamstresses’ tailoring skillset.
And these skillset translates to many of the seamstresses entrepreneurial endeavors, including making clothing they sell to friends and in local markets. They also play a vital part of the feedback loop when developing samples for new bags with our tailoring supervisor.
Juan-David Quinones is the designer responsible for the overall designs of the bags. He’s works out of our San Diego office, but works closely with the social enterprise manager and tailoring supervisor based in Gulu, Uganda. He regularly travels to the Mend workshop…
Currently, they’re no plans to for a clothing line, but we’re excited to move into new market spaces within the bag market by early 2014.
Some of the bags have special designs, such as the Fourth Estate, slingshot cow and tree. Do the symbols have special meanings?
Yes… For the Fourth Estate tote, the print represents three things: the feather representing action, the olive branch for peace, and the upside down triangle symbolizing Invisible Children’s ethos of the “fourth estate.”
The cow and tree are part of our “Prosperity Series” of prints, which highlight areas were the Mend ladies have reinvested portions of their salaries into income generating ventures.
For the cow, this represents the purchase of cattle and other livestock. The tree represents land ownership.
Do you plan to help any of these women become entrepreneurs on their own? Have any of them shared a desire to start their own businesses?
Absolutely. There’s a huge gain in the long-term sustainability in the lives of the seamstresses and their families when we can help facilitate their entrepreneurial goals.
As briefly mentioned, many of the seamstresses purchase income generating items like cattle or land with the salaries earned at Mend. Cattle for obvious byproducts like milk and meat, and land used to build homes that can then be rented out.
Are there any other ways that Lady Clever readers can help support your cause? (Besides buying a bag, of course!)
It’s important to remember the root conflict that spawned the genesis of Mend is still ongoing. The Lord’s Resistance Army conflict is Africa’s longest running war and their fighters are to this day, continuing to kidnap and sexually assault women… women like the Mend seamstresses.
Invisible Children’s peaceful rescue and recovery efforts in the region are closer than ever to ending this war. Every dollar we raise results in fewer killings, fewer abductions, fewer child soldiers, and more hope for long-term peace for an already impoverished region.
Photos courtesy of Mend.