In our disposable age, the art of sewing is sometimes undervalued. However, for a group of women in South Kivu, sewing is literally a lifeline.
South Kivu, like most of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been devastated by years of conflict, which killed over 5 million people.
Women faced particular suffering. Even before the conflict, women faced hardship and low status in a traditional patriarchal society. But during the war things became much worse. All sides used rape as a weapon, an estimated 40,000 women, were assaulted by combatants- a horrific tactic that aimed to emotionally terrorise and bring shame upon victims. Many have since been shunned by families and communities.
The war also widowed a staggering amount of women, some as young as 16. In a society which places low value on women, a widow is often left to fend for her children alone.
WER has been working in partnership with a local NGO, African Revival Ministries (ARM), in Uvira to improve the lives of women affected by the war. Together they have developed, funded and implemented an income generation project through which women receive sewing and tailoring training. Literacy and numeracy training are also provided. Graduates are then able to make an income by selling the goods that they produce. This can then be used to pay for food and for their children’s education.
Graduates are also encouraged to set up small co-operatives, gaining extra security through mutual support. There is even a reward scheme in place whereby participants are given the opportunity to win their own sewing machine.
By giving women the tools that they need to support themselves and their children, it is hoped that they will eventually become self-sustainable. By empowering women as wage-earners and small scale entrepreneurs the programme also seeks to gently adjust the status of women in Congolese society.
The programme has been running successfully now for five years. 30 women graduate each year with this year’s class graduating in July. Over 50 women so far have gone on to start their own tailoring businesses, illustrating the sustainability of the project.
Céline is one of the programme's success stories. Céline's mother died when Céline was 6 and for many years she was moved from family member to family member or left to fend for herself. She was excluded from school because she could not pay the fees. At just 16 she had lost all hope of a better future. Since joining the scheme Céline has felt much more positive about her options in life. On graduation, due for September, she has already found a placement with one of the co-operatives and will be able to support herself at last.
"It is as if the sewing machine has freed me," she said. "With each stitch I have more choice and I become stronger."
This project still needs support and maybe you can help! To ensure the ongoing success and durability of the sewing school, more sewing machines are required. More machines will allow the setting up of more small co-operatives amongst the women in South Kivu and allow further self-sufficiency.
WER is looking preferably for hand or foot operated machines – old or new- but we will also be happy with electric machines. If you would like to learn more about this project or would like to donate a machine then please email or call 0844 249 2129.