It all started with a ripple that has grown larger and larger. It started when one single mom, with no external support, decided that she wanted to raise her daughter from home.
Many women share that desire and have since joined the working from home revolution. However, for some women, working from home is not only a desire; it is a need. These are the disadvantaged women of Salaam Wanita.
Salaam Wanita women cannot work outside their homes for many reasons. Some are single moms, some have chronic illnesses, and others have children with disabilities that require their full attention. Many have tried to work outside the home, but little education and irrelevant skills leaves them open to exploitation by factory work, while their family suffers due to lack of attention.
Salaam Wanita was born in 2002 to help these women help themselves. We started by training 120 women to weave 2 basket designs for 6 months, and gave them another year to perfect the technique. They practiced, practiced, and practiced until they developed their own designs and techniques.
In October 2005, we landed our first corporate sale! We sold 70 baskets but soon found that we faced tough competition from cheaper rattan baskets from China and Vietnam. Our baskets are not produced in sweatshops and are more like objects of art however, we still face competition from cheaper imports.
Instead of giving up, we embarked on innovation. We came up with creative new designs and better colour patterns. The innovative designs boosted our sales, giving the women the much needed income and the confidence to begin selling on their own.
By 2007, our eco-basket project had proven to skeptics that it could survive the Chinese and Vietnamese competition even with increased production costs due to our principles of fair wage, safety, health and environmental protection. Now, our weavers have become artists, creating new designs and colour combinations as they weave.
At the same time, we have enforced greater quality control. In the beginning, we knew that if quality standards were too strict many of the women would get discouraged and quit. Now with more veteran weavers the extensive support network enables women to bounce back from constructive criticisms about their products.
The process has been refined and weavers are able to coordinate orders and train new women through each stage of the learning process. As the basket sales increase, the best weavers take on leadership roles in their own production groups in order to cope with large orders. These leaders have transformed themselves from weavers in the production process, and into micro-entrepreneurs, responsible for coordinating a group of 4-10 women. The transformation is amazing and speaks volumes for gender empowerment. The leaders of the group take responsibility to address poor quality through retraining, sourcing for materials, coordinating drop off and pick up of products, and soliciting of sales for their own groups.
We have gone through a long, ardouos process to help women help themselves. We have never given up on them even during the hardest times. Help us to help them walk a positive path in life.
We are now working to bring our baskets to a mainstream audience but face an enormous challenge. Our baskets are ethically produced. The weavers earn a fair wage for their work and their work conditions are safe and allow them to take care of their families. This is a new concept in the Malaysian market place. Consumers and businesses still prefer the cheapest goods, rather than goods produced with social consciousness.
We have overcome the first set of challenges in helping a marginalized group of women. Now, we are bringing our products and the message of social consciousness to the marketplace. Through the entire process has been navigating uncharted waters, without the support of other NGOs or social enterprises which are embarking on the same mission to help people. We have made substantial changes in the lives of our women and will continue addressing each challenge step-by-step!