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DEVELOPMENT: Peace Baskets Bring Hope to Rwandan Women

Lauren Vopni

KIGALI, Aug 31 2008 (IPS) - In the courtyard of a red brick home in the district of Gitarama outside Kigali, three women sit together on a bench, laughing and gossiping as they wrap lengths of crimson twine around a curl of bunched straw. While it may seem like little more then Rwandan tradition, these weavers represent an economic success the tiny landlocked country has earned by the hands of its women.

These weavers in Gitarama have gained a higher price for their products and new markets. Credit: Lauren Vopni/IPS

These weavers in Gitarama have gained a higher price for their products and new markets. Credit: Lauren Vopni/IPS

Through brokered connections to the private sector, basket-making cooperatives, comprised of groups of vulnerable women such as the disabled, the HIV positive or women widowed during the 1994 genocide, are selling their handicrafts on the international market.

Prompted by the 2000 African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a U.S. trade act that gave 39 Sub-Saharan African countries including Rwanda increased access to U.S. markets, many exporters began to explore new avenues for trading.

The internationally admired hand-woven Rwandan baskets made of papyrus reeds and grass was an obvious place to start. With the support of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), and other international development organisations for training, women were encouraged by the Rwandan government to form cooperatives and sell their baskets to Fair Trade exporters.

For one basket, a woman in a cooperative can earn as much as double what she would make if she sold it independently. In many cases, the exporter provides the cooperative with a portion, such as the colour dyes for the natural fibres, or all of her materials in order to maintain uniformity of the final product, further reducing her output costs. While the women are charged a fee when they join a cooperative, the long-term benefits to a weaver’s sales are deemed by many to be worth it.

"People never used to think that women were able business women or able business managers," says Janet Nkubana, who co-founded Gahaya Links with her sister Joy Ndungutse following the genocide as a way to help women left widowed. "We have proved that women can be, and perhaps can even do it better then men."

Gahaya Links now exports up to 50,000 baskets annually in an exclusive deal with Macy’s department store in the United States through their Path to Peace project and O, the Oprah Magazine, employing 3,000 women in cooperatives across the country.

While many weavers are unaware of exactly how much their baskets are sold for internationally, they are proud that the outside world is interested in buying their wares.

"It makes us feel confident," says Priscille Ntivugurzwa, president of the Dufatanye cooperative, aptly meaning ‘work together, come together’. "We know that when our baskets are going abroad it makes visitors want to come to Rwanda, and through that, we can have a new relationship with the world outside."

The success of the Macy’s project has expanded the market interest for Rwandan baskets. The Rwandan Basket Company, another Fair Trade exporter, is creating competition for Gahaya Links. Female weavers are realising their handiwork is a hot commodity and are prepared to move their cooperative to another buyer for a higher price.

"Gahaya Links has helped open our minds and develop our ideas but if we can be paid more, it would be better," says Ntivugurzwa of her cooperative’s decision to leave Gahaya Links. "Because of the baskets, we are meeting many new buyers who come to visit and see what we can do."

The realm of business in Rwanda has historically been male dominated and trade, already a challenge in a country with limited access points, was no exception. With over 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line, female basket weavers can earn between 25,000 and 40,000 Rwandan Francs per month (roughly 50 to 80 dollars). For a woman who previously survived off subsistence farming, it is a marked increase that has enabled women to not only send their children to school and to think about planning for the years to come.

"One of the things that weaving has been able to bring to women is economic security in terms of income but also providing some kind of social support network among themselves," says Donnah Kamashazi Gasana, national programme officer for UNIFEM in Rwanda. "Our challenge is how to bring hope back to the hopeless women in the world and I think we can only do that if we give them economic security."

As a woman’s economic security increases, often so does her status within the community, enabling many women to become more civically engaged. Like other weavers affiliated with the many basket making cooperatives across the country, Eugenie Nyanzira, a weaver with the Rebunyurwe cooperative outside Gitarama, is now involved in her local government.

UNIFEM notes that many female weavers now participate in various aspects of governance, ranging from community government to running for public office.

In a country that was ravaged by genocide only 14 years ago, it is a powerful statement that the making of Agaseke, Rwanda’s signature peace baskets, is today helping to bring Tutsis and Hutus together for development and healing.

"The genocide caused many problems and we weren’t left with a good relationship," says Nyanzira. "Agaseke (baskets) have allowed us to come together and work for money so that we can help each other instead of hating each other or remembering the past."

Rwandan women are together weaving a bright future, which is the very fibre enduring peace and stability is made from.

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