Gender bias in East Africa severely limits the economic growth of artisan communities. According to a 2009 National Export Strategy (NES) report from the Ugandan government, while Ugandan women make a significant contribution the East African nation’s economy, they do not receive adequate monetary compensation. The majority of rural women do not earn what those of us in the U.S. would consider reasonable incomes or own land.
NES states that women, on average, work between two and eight hours longer per day than the average Ugandan man, produce 90 percent of the nation’s total food supply and one-half of cash crops, yet only 40 percent of private enterprises are women-owned. More than 80 percent of all economically active Ugandan women are self-employed or unpaid workers, and many more women than men make less than one dollar (U.S.) per day.
Not only is cultural bias at the heart of East Africa’s gender inequality, but issues such as HIV/AIDS and gender-based violence further challenge the economic efforts of Ugandan women. Privately-funded organizations such as SHAVR (Support HIV/AIDS Victims Rwanda) work to help provide these women with the basic support, training and skills necessary to become self-sustaining community members. Ugandan Merchandise and Harkiss Designs are also committed to contributing to the economic empowerment of East African women.
The National Association of Women Organizations’ in Uganda (NAWOU) developed a large craft clearing house in 2008 in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, where the products of women artisans are collected for export to International Fair Trade Association markets worldwide. With many items crafted from such materials as banana fibers and leaves, women can create baskets and mats for sale without a big initial investment in supplies. An added benefit is that many of these products, similar to the bags and accessories offered in the Harkiss Designs catalog, utilize sustainable materials that do not harm the plants.
Other organizations, such as Empower, promote women’s community craft co-ops in East Africa as a means of organizing self-help community efforts in 2009; the Empower Campaign provided seven elementary schools in Uganda with supplies for orphaned and vulnerable students. Part of the funding for schools comes from the sale of women’s craftwork at the organization’s U.S.-based fundraising events.
Organizations like those above that provide channels through which East African women artisans can market their products internationally are supporting the struggle toward gender equality in countries such as Uganda and Rwanda. Economically empowering women will provide the strong economic infrastructure these nations need for a sustainable future.